SEC: Dillon Day

STARKVILLE, Miss. -- Dan Mullen leans back in his oversized black leather office chair. He turns his attention from an interview with a reporter to the large projection screen on the right wall of his office.

Mississippi State’s head coach carefully studies the movements -- or lack thereof -- of sophomore defensive lineman Chris Jones. The crown jewel of Mullen’s 2013 recruiting class is supposed to be this prodigy player sent to Starkville to make mincemeat of opponents.

Not on this play. No, Mullen flashes a half-disappointed smile as he rewinds over and over a play where his young phenom is getting abused by a double team. Yes, it’s a double team, but even Mullen knows Jones is better than this. Jones shouldn’t be stopped this easily, even if it is two behemoths in his way.

[+] EnlargeChris Jones
John Korduner/Icon SMIMississippi State's Chris Jones finished last season with 32 tackles, including seven for loss and three sacks.
"He’s getting blocked right here," Mullen said.

Mullen is still looking to get the most out of Jones, who was rated the nation’s No. 6 defensive end and an ESPN300 member by ESPN’s RecruitingNation in 2013. Mullen sees the potential for greatness, but he also sees inconsistent technique and raw talent that hinders his game.

It’s still very early in Jones’ Mississippi State career, and the good news is he understands that he is still a work in progress, which is a scary thought because many pegged him as a preseason All-American performer.

"Still a lot to work on technically to become a great, every-down player," Mullen said. "He makes big plays, but still has a lot of work to do to become a great, technical, every-down player."

Last season, Jones was a little lost inside defensive coordinator Geoff Collins' defense. Attempting to get his technique down, Jones moved from defensive end to defensive tackle, and he struggled to adjust to his new position.

The funny thing is Jones said he was tricked into playing extensively at defensive tackle by Mullen. As Jones recalls, Mullen told him they would try him inside for the first four games and then move him back outside. Jones agreed, but after four weeks, he was still at tackle and felt he was underperforming.

"I was thinking 'I can’t do this, man. This is not for me,'" Jones said. "I came in at D-end, I need to stay at D-end."

But Mullen had different plans. He felt Jones could do more inside, so he posed an important question to his freshman.

"You wanna be great, don’t you?"

Well, how could Jones say no?

"I was like, 'Yes sir, anything to be great,'" Jones recalled with a boyish grin.

With Jones transitioning inside, he finished his freshman season with 32 total tackles, including seven for loss and three sacks. But to Jones, his season left a lot to be desired. He still thinks about what he could have done differently on certain plays, which fuels his work ethic now.

His technique is coming along, but he’s moving fast, working within the framework of the defense and is thinking less. He took his training more seriously in the offseason, slimming down from the 315 pounds he played at last season. To improve his fundamentals, Jones took time to watch his own film over and over during the offseason ... by himself.

It paid off in fall camp, and his sophomore year has already started well -- he had three tackles and a sack in the Bulldogs’ 49-0 opening win against Southern Miss.

"When you’re learning what to do, you can’t get your full potential," Jones said. "When you know what to do, you can just ball out."

The Bulldogs are hoping he continues to do just that in Year 2. The talent is there, and as senior center Dillon Day puts it, Jones has that special ability you don’t see from a lot of players. Sometimes it’s hidden, but when it erupts, watch out because he can hurt you.

"I guess you can say you’re getting better [by playing against him], but he really is a freak," Day said. "You can only do so much. ... Once he gets everything down, I don’t know what you can do [to stop him]."
With Dak Prescott entrenched as the starter and Damian Williams a decently experienced backup, Mississippi State's quarterback spot looked fine.

With Jameon Lewis, Robert Johnson, Joe Morrow and De'Runnya Wilson, there were plenty of wideouts to draw from.

[+] EnlargeDillon Day
Wesley Hitt/Getty ImagesDillon Day and the rest of the Bulldogs' O-line will have to overcome adversity to win SEC games.
And with Josh Robinson, Nick Griffin, Ashton Shumpert and Aeris Williams all available, the running back position looked fine, too.

But if there was one area where Mississippi State needed to stay healthy, it was the offensive line. Depth, coach Dan Mullen pointed out late last week, was a major point of concern.

"That's the one position during the season that we can't afford any injuries," he said.

It turned out to be an auspicious statement. On Monday, we learned that projected starting right tackle Damien Robinson tore his ACL and will miss the season.

The Bulldogs were banged up enough as it was with starting guards Justin Malone and Ben Beckwith missing practice time during fall camp. Throw in the noticeable absence of Gabe Jackson, and it's hard to imagine what the Mississippi State offensive line looks like in Starkville today.

Now the second-string linemen Mullen was hoping he wouldn't have to call on until next season are suddenly being put to the test earlier than expected. "They're growing and they're growing quickly," Mullen said last Friday. But will they progress enough between now and the start of the season?

"They're going to be the huge group of inexperienced players that you'd love the opportunity to slowly build them in instead of having to throw them into the fire immediately," Mullen said.

Look for Justin Senior and Rufus Warren, two inexperienced reserves, to be the top candidates to replace Damien at right tackle. Mullen, when reached Tuesday morning, said there's also the possibility of moving a tackle to guard and working with different combinations on the interior of the line.

The good news is that there are 11 days until the opener and the first three weeks of the season don't look to be a huge challenge with non-conference cupcakes Southern Miss, UAB and South Alabama. That means there's plenty of time for whoever wins the job to get comfortable enough in the offense before SEC play begins Week 4 at LSU.

Dillon Day, a three-year starter and Rimington Trophy watch list center, said he's looking forward to the run up to the season. Before Damien Robinson went down, Day said he was feeling good about the numbers on the offensive line.

"I've seen good things already," Day said. "Guys have been rotating in that haven't played, like Devon [Desper]. That was a big thing to have not just five guys but eight guys that can play.

"We have a lot of depth that can play now. That's a big thing, getting new guys in there and letting them play with the ones. And so far everyone has done really well with that."

With Damien Robinson out, that depth will be tested. And like any inexperienced player, we won't know how they'll perform until the pressure is on during a game situation.

If Mississippi State is going to finally break through in the SEC West, the offensive line is going to have to drive the train. Without them, the depth at receiver and running back is meaningless. Without them, Prescott could get banged up and his dark horse Heisman Trophy campaign could fall off the tracks.

There's a lot to like about the Bulldogs this year. The only question was how the O-line would hold up, and so far it's not off to a good start.

Mississippi State season preview

August, 13, 2014
Aug 13
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» More team previews: ACC | Big 12 | Big Ten | Pac-12 | SEC

Previewing the 2014 season for the Mississippi State Bulldogs:

2013 record: 7-6 (3-5 SEC). Beat Rice 44-7 in the AutoZone Liberty Bowl.

Final grade for 2013 season: The Bulldogs had a very subpar start to the season and looked out of bowl contention after beginning November 0-3, getting outscored 105-64 in the process. But after finishing the regular season 2-0, including an overtime win over archrival Ole Miss, the Bulldogs trounced Rice in their bowl game, giving them a C for the season.

Key losses: QB Tyler Russell, RB LaDarius Perkins, OL Gabe Jackson, OL Charles Siddoway, DT Denico Autry, LB Deontae Skinner, S Nickoe Whitley, P Baker Swedenburg

[+] EnlargeDak Prescott
AP Photo/Rainier EhrhardtDak Prescott ended 2013 with a bang and could emerge as one of the top signal-callers in the SEC.
Key returnees: QB Dak Prescott, RB Josh Robinson, WR Jameon Lewis, WR Robert Johnson, TE Malcolm Johnson, OL Blaine Clausell, C Dillon Day, DT Chris Jones, DT Kaleb Eulls, DE Preston Smith, LB Benardrick McKinney, CB Jamerson Love, CB Taveze Calhoun

Instant impact newcomers: LB Gerri Green, DT Cory Thomas

Breakout player: Receiver De'Runnya Wilson has a chance to really make a name for himself this fall, but I'm going to go with Robinson. The compact, 5-foot-9, 215-pound wrecking ball of a player could be very, very fun to watch this fall. He's spent two years learning from Vick Ballard and Perkins and is primed to have a big year for the Bulldogs. He can grind out yards between the tackles and has excellent speed to get to the outside and make plays in space.

Key position battle: The Bulldogs will have quite the fight on their hands at right tackle. Senior Damien Robinson arrived as a highly-billed recruit, but has yet to live up to that label. It's now or never for him, but he'll have to compete with sophomore Justin Senior, who the coaches are pretty excited about. However, if neither works out veteran Justin Malone, who is coming back from a season-ending foot injury, could move from right guard to right tackle. That wouldn't be ideal for the Bulldogs.

Most important game: If Mississippi State is really going to turn the corner and actually compete for the SEC Western Division title, the Bulldogs have to get a win in Baton Rouge against LSU on Sept. 20. The Bulldogs return 18 starters, have better depth than coach Dan Mullen knows what to do with, and won't be afraid of a trip to Tiger Stadium. With that said, this is a must-win if this team is going to have a chance at making it to Atlanta for the SEC championship game. The Tigers are an enigma this season, but could be dangerous down the stretch. Getting them early is huge, and the Bulldogs have to take full advantage of that.

Biggest question mark: While right tackle is a concern for the Bulldogs, finding some consistency in field-goal kicking would be nice. Devon Bell and Evan Sobiesk combined to go an unflattering 9-for-20 on field-goal attempts last season. They were a combined 1-for-6 from 40-plus yards out and each had a kicked blocked in 2013. Transfer J.J. McGrath will compete for the starting job, but he's a ways behind Sobiesk at this point. Still, Sobiesk still has a long way to go in the consistency department.

Upset special: Again, in order for Mississippi State to take the next step as a program, the Bulldogs need to beat one of the league's best. After Texas A&M comes to town on Oct. 4, the Bulldogs host reigning SEC champion Auburn. And the Tigers could be pretty fatigued after a game against LSU. Talk about the perfect time to take one from Auburn. The Bulldogs lost a heartbreaker to Auburn last season after Nick Marshall orchestrated a late, game-winning touchdown drive. You better believe revenge will be on the Bulldogs' minds.

Key stat: What Mullen has done in five seasons at Mississippi State has been impressive, but he has struggled against ranked opponents. In the last three seasons, the Bulldogs have gone 0-15 against teams that finished the season ranked in one of the final polls.

They said it: “I’ve had a good year here and there at Mississippi State, but never consistency. I’m proud that that’s what we’ve been able to do. Yeah, at some point we’ll win a championship here. Maybe this year.” -- Mullen

Preseason predictions

ESPN Stats & Information: 8.45 wins

Bovada over-under: 7.5 wins

Our take: This is the deepest team Mullen has had at Mississippi State. The offense can run and pass for days with the weapons and experience coming back, while the defense is loaded with underrated talent. The schedule isn't too daunting with an incredibly easy nonconference slate and Auburn and Texas A&M at home. Having to go to Alabama, LSU and Ole Miss isn't ideal, but if the Bulldogs can take two from that road trio, they'll be in contention for the West title. The Bulldogs will challenge for the division and finish the regular season 9-3.

Center(s) of attention in the SEC

August, 6, 2014
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There are always debates this time of year as we anticipate the start of another college football season.

Who’s the favorite to win the national championship?

Which is the strongest conference?

Who’s the Heisman Trophy front-runner?

[+] EnlargeReese Dismukes
Greg McWilliams/Icon SMIReese Dismukes was a finalist for the Rimington Award last season and is joined by 10 other SEC centers in this year's Rimington watch list.
What’s not up for debate, at least with regard to the SEC, is that the league has never been this talented or this deep at the center position entering a season.

Eleven of the 14 starting centers in the SEC were among the 66 players on the preseason watch list for the Rimington Trophy, which is presented annually to the top center in the country.

Talk about being the center of attention.

And while it’s true that we all get caught up in the skill players -- the quarterbacks, running backs and receivers -- it all starts right there in the middle of the offensive line.

If you’re good at center, everything else usually has a way of falling into place up front offensively.

“The thing I like best about it is that you’re in control of five guys, and really, the success of those five guys is sort of on your shoulders,” said Auburn senior center Reese Dismukes, who was a finalist for the Rimington Trophy a year ago.

“You hear a lot of people say the center is the quarterback of the offensive line. That appeals to me. I like being in control, making the calls and making sure everybody’s on the same page. If you’re not making the right calls, somebody’s going to be on the wrong page, and it only takes one person being on the wrong page for it all to go bad. I like having that pressure on me.”

Dismukes’ SEC cohorts on the Rimington Trophy watch list include Georgia’s David Andrews, Missouri’s Evan Boehm, Mississippi State’s Dillon Day, Florida’s Max Garcia, Alabama’s Ryan Kelly, Texas A&M’s Mike Matthews, LSU’s Elliott Porter, Kentucky’s Jon Toth, Vanderbilt’s Joe Townsend and South Carolina’s Cody Waldrop.

They’re all a little different, some more experienced than others, and some bigger than others. But they’ve all perfected the rarest of crafts, which is being able to successfully snap a football (usually a shotgun snap in this day and age) with a 300-pound plus defensive tackle itching to step on their throat as soon as the ball is snapped.

“You’re doing a lot of different things at once and processing a lot of information very quickly,” said Boehm, who started all 14 games last season at center after starting all 12 at left guard as a true freshman. “It’s a big responsibility as an offensive lineman to touch the ball every play. Everything starts with you, and you have to be vocal up there.”

Dismukes, a preseason All-American, is part of an Auburn offensive line that should again be one of the best in the SEC. The 6-3, 295-pound senior has been a fixture up front for the Tigers from the day he walked onto campus and has started in 37 of his 39 games.

Ask him how much he’s grown up during that time, and he offers a hearty chuckle.

“Light years,” he said. “This game makes you grow up fast, or it will shove you right out of it.”

Whereas Dismukes has been a center ever since he can remember, Boehm didn’t start playing the position until last season. He actually went to Missouri coach Gary Pinkel and requested the move after playing left guard as a freshman.

“I felt like it was the best thing for the team and best thing for me, and I appreciate Coach Pinkel for having enough trust in me to make the move,” said Boehm, who was actually a fullback when he first started playing football in the seventh grade.

Boehm isn’t the only SEC center who’s relatively new to the position. Garcia is making the transition as a fifth-year senior at Florida after splitting his time last season between guard and tackle. He began his career at Maryland and started all 12 games at left tackle in 2011 before transferring to Florida.

But regardless of the path a player takes to the center position, there’s a fraternity of sorts, a pride thing that transcends size, speed, and even looks.

Boehm and Dismukes know each other from the recruiting process, as Dismukes was Boehm’s host when Boehm visited Auburn.

Dismukes and Georgia's Andrews also stay in touch and will occasionally share tips on upcoming opponents. Between them, they have 64 career starts. Mississippi State’s Day has 34 career starts. So if you throw Day into the mix, that’s a combined 98 starts among the SEC’s three most grizzled center veterans.

“We’re not the strongest or most athletic or any of that stuff,” Dismukes said of his center brethren. “Maybe we’re a little weird, but we just love the game.”

They love their hair, too.

Boehm and Day are running a tight race for the “locks” award. Both are known for their trademark hair as much as they are for locking down opposing defensive linemen. Boehm has the bushy look going -- beard and all -- while Day is sporting the long, blond-rocker look.

Of course, it’s not like either is overly concerned with style. Technique, maybe, but certainly not style, not with some of the monsters they have to block in the SEC.

“With the defensive line culture in the SEC, you better also create that same culture in the offensive line, and that starts in the middle,” Boehm said. “The great thing about this league is you’ve got guys like Reese and David and all the other guys, and you can study their moves and why they’ve been so successful and try to incorporate it into your game.

“It’s an honor to be among them.”

And even better to be front and center.
Another day, another two college football award watch lists arrive.

Today we have the lists for the Mackey Award, which goes to the nation's top tight end, and the Rimington Trophy, which goes to the top center.

The SEC well represented on both lists, with seven players on the Mackey list and 11 on the Rimington. Here is a rundown:

Mackey
Rory Anderson, South Carolina
Evan Engram, Ole Miss
Hunter Henry, Arkansas
O.J. Howard, Alabama
Malcolm Johnson, Mississippi State
Jay Rome, Georgia
C.J. Uzomah, Auburn

Rimington
David Andrews, Georgia
Evan Boehm, Missouri
Dillon Day, Mississippi State
Reese Dismukes, Auburn
Max Garcia, Florida
Ryan Kelly, Alabama
Mike Matthews, Texas A&M
Elliott Porter, LSU
Jon Toth, Kentucky
Joe Townsend, Vanderbilt
Cody Waldrop, South Carolina
STARKVILLE, Miss. -- One look at Mississippi State center Dillon Day, and you get why he’s been put in the position he’s in.

The robust 6-foot-4, 300-pound wall resembles a jacked 80s rocker with long golden hair and colorful tattoo sleeves slathered on both arms.

[+] EnlargeDillon Day
Wesley Hitt/Getty ImagesDillon Day's perseverance is paying off for Mississippi State.
Strap a helmet and pads on him, and Day displays ferocious features on the football field. He’s intimidating to look at and just plain scary when he gets going.

In a league predicated on the success of its line play, you need that look and that feel from your center. You need a beast in the middle to direct your line and claw his way around the trenches.

But the fifth-year senior, who has started 45 games for the Bulldogs over the past three seasons, wasn’t always such a menacing player. The first days were unbearable at times. When he was the one getting pushed during his very first set of collegiate two-a-days, he almost quit.

“It was horrible,” Day told ESPN.com in March. “I didn’t think I was going to make it. I thought that this wasn’t the life for me.”

For a player so used to dominating at the high school level, Day was trying to climb his way out of a valley as a true freshman. The former West Monroe (La.) standout was physically and mentally beaten down during his first summer in Starkville. The practices drained him, and the workouts defeated him.

The good news was that Day, who worked out at guard after playing tackle in high school, was redshirting his first season. He’d have time to grow.

But when Year 2 rolled around, Day felt overwhelmed yet again. Thinking his body would have adjusted better, Day said workouts were tougher as coaches expected more and pushed even harder because of his prospects to start; this time at center.

“We certainly didn’t make that easier on him -- yelling and screaming and grinding on him,” coach Dan Mullen said.

The idea was to break him into being that “every-down, perform-at-a-high-level guy” who was going to lead the entire offensive line. Mullen couldn’t have a soft center. He needed someone with a chip on his shoulder, someone with grit and mettle.

But Day’s tough-guy attitude that he exuded in high school seemed to wash away. The mental side was crumbling, and in turn, his physical nature suffered. But the coaches kept pushing.

Halfway through two-a-days, Day decided his time was up with the Bulldogs. But as soon as he thought he was out the door, his parents talked to him. Day said they continued the trend of pushing him, this time to strike back with his own play and attitude. They motivated him to stay and prove to himself that he could conquer the madness that was the preseason.

“My bags were packed,” Day said. “I was about to go right back to Louisiana. I stuck it out and then I got my number called my redshirt freshman year, and it’s been clicking ever since.”

Going from unranked high school prospect to three-year starter in the SEC is the definition of clicking. Day picked himself up and marched up the depth chart into a valuable role with a Bulldogs team that has enjoyed a steady climb under the guidance of Mullen.

It was his realization years ago that he had to be a fighter that helped get him to the final stage of his career in Starkville.

“I don’t scream at him as much,” Mullen said with wicked grin. “He understood that by being the center, his standard of play has to be above everybody else because he’s the leader of that line. It’s all going to go through him. Where he sets the bar, that’s where the bar’s going to be. However high he sets it, that’s where our success level is going to be.”

Day now relishes that spotlight. As he puts it, he’s “the brains of the offensive line.” He’s become a fundamental cog with help from co-offensive coordinator and offensive line coach John Hevesy. He’s learned how to own his presence up front with guidance from guys like Gabe Jackson.

So much has happened since Day packed his bags. As he looks at his final days in Starkville, he’s now looking to leave Mississippi State in another fashion.

“That’s just life. You have to stick through the battles,” Day said.

“I’m here my fifth year and just the other day I was here as a freshman trying to quit. It does hit home with you.”

STARKVILLE, Miss. -- When Dan Mullen first took over as Mississippi State’s head coach before the 2009 season, the goal was very simple: Make it to bowl games.

For a program that lacked the historical success of the SEC’s big boys, a bowl game here and there was something Mississippi State was more than happy with.

But those were simpler times in Starkville.

Now, as Mullen enters his sixth season with the Bulldogs, just becoming bowl eligible isn’t good enough. When you make it to four straight, it’s time to take the next step, and the overwhelming feeling around the program is that the time is now for Mississippi State.

“When we got here, we talked about winning a championship,” Mullen told ESPN.com last week. “And guys thought that was good talk and was something they wanted to do, but they weren’t sure that it could [happen]. There’s still that hesitation of 'Well, it sounds great, but how real is it?'

“You look at this team, and our guys expect to compete for the SEC West championship this year.”

And this isn’t just an up-and-coming team puffing smoke about the place. This is a team that returns 20 of 22 defenders who were on last season’s bowl roster. It has a potential All-SEC quarterback and lost five total starters from a 2013 team that finished on a three-game winning streak that included an overtime victory over archrival Ole Miss and a bowl blowout of Rice.

When Mullen approached his team shortly after the Bulldogs’ 44-7 drubbing of Rice in the AutoZone Liberty Bowl, he found an anxious group. Players wanted back on the field. The months before spring practice were too long, and they couldn’t even comprehend the thought of not smashing into someone not dressed in maroon for another nine months.

The momentum this team got from the tail end of the 2013 season has fueled players like no other season has, veteran linebacker Benardrick McKinney said. Center Dillon Day said there’s a lot more trust throughout the roster with the improved depth at just about every position.

[+] EnlargeDan Mullen
Stacy Revere/Getty ImagesDan Mullen says Mississippi State has big goals this season: "Our guys expect to compete for the SEC West championship this year."
There’s a familiarity within this team that has players salivating over improving on a 7-6 season that brought Mullen one win away from tying for second all-time at Mississippi State. The theme of this spring is gaining even more ground on the perceived SEC front-runners.

“We aren’t really given a shot with those types of teams, but this year I definitely feel like we’re going to be a factor to deal with,” Day said. “We definitely can beat those teams.

“This year, we have all the factors; we have every position filled up.”

Mullen understands that confidence alone won’t take the Bulldogs to their second SEC title game. Games have to be played and wins have to appear. Mullen might own the program’s highest winning percentage for a coach (36-28, .563) since the late Darrell Royal in 1954-55 (.600), but he has yet to even sniff the SEC West crown.

During his impressive 9-4 season in his second year, he finished just 4-4 in SEC play. He hasn’t eclipsed that many conference wins in a season since and has had losing conference records three times.

Mullen has had four straight winning seasons but hasn’t hit the double-digit mark for wins. On paper, the Bulldogs are a blip on the SEC’s radar, but to Mullen, he’s seen growth, development and an incredibly inspired team.

For a program littered with former two- and three-star high school prospects, the Bulldogs could prove to be a formidable opponent this season with so much experience coming back. Mullen sees it, players see it and fans are expecting more wins in the treacherous SEC West.

“I want those expectations,” Mullen said. “I want our fans to have those expectations; I want our people to have those expectations. I like it on the national level, having those expectations.”

It’s hard not to blame the Bulldogs’ for being confident. Quarterback Dak Prescott, who has already earned the dark-horse Heisman moniker from national pundits, ended last year with two very gutty performances against Ole Miss and Rice and returns his top-five receiving targets, including senior Jameon Lewis, who registered 923 receiving yards last year.

Running back LaDarius Perkins is gone, but Mullen said he’s pleased with the talent and depth he has at running back, which starts with potential breakout candidate Josh Robinson.

Then there’s that defense that finished 2013 fourth in the SEC and 18th nationally in total defense. The Bulldogs, which lost just two defensive starters from last year, held their final four opponents to 20 or fewer points and allowed an average of 296.3 yards during that span.

Mississippi State won’t get much real national championship talk, but the SEC title isn’t out of the question. With the unknowns surging throughout the league, the Bulldogs are set up to rub shoulders with and maybe push around the SEC’s elite.

“I’ve had a good year here and there at Mississippi State, but never consistency,” Mullen said. “I’m proud that that’s what we’ve been able to do. Yeah, at some point we’ll win a championship here. Maybe this year.”


Video: Mississippi State's Dillon Day

March, 27, 2014
Mar 27
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SEC reporter Edward Aschoff talks with Mississippi State center Dillon Day about the Bulldogs' spring practice and their offense moving forward.
We have another preseason watch list for your reading pleasure. The Rimington Trophy, which is given annually to the nation's best center, announced its list of 2013 candidates.

The SEC has eight representatives on the watch list and here they are:
Every year, players come and go in college football. With the turnover, teams can either grow or take steps back.

It's time to check out Mississippi State's strongest position and weakest position heading into the 2013 season:

Strongest position: Offensive line

The Bulldogs have the luxury of bringing back a very talented offensive line that is led by first-team All-SEC guard Gabe Jackson. Jackson could have tested the NFL waters after last season but decided to stay for his senior year. That's great news for the Bulldogs, who return three other starters. Both tackles -- Blaine Clausell and Charles Siddoway -- return, but they have to be better in pass protection. Quarterback Tyler Russell took far too many hits last year, and offensive line coach John Hevesy made it a point to make his line much tougher this spring. Expect to see the tackles play at a much higher level this fall. Dillon Day is also back at center, giving the Bulldogs four upperclassmen returning up front. Filling the right guard spot is the next step for Mississippi State; sophomore Justin Malone left the spring as the starter. The coaching staff has some pretty good depth to work with all along the line. Pass protection should get better and the Bulldogs should once again be fine running the ball with this line coming back.

Weakest position: Wide receiver

The Bulldogs are basically starting over at wide receiver, as four seniors, including three starters, are gone. Those seniors accounted for 148 receptions, 2,096 yards and 15 touchdowns last year. The Bulldogs' top three receivers from last year were all seniors, including Chad Bumphis, who caught a team-high 58 passes for 922 yards and 12 touchdowns. Replacing this group won't be easy, and there isn't a lot of experience there to help. Juniors Robert Johnson and Jameon Lewis are the leading returning receivers -- having combined for 27 catches for 272 yards and two touchdowns, both by Johnson. The good news is that both had good springs, but they'll need help this fall. Sophomore Joe Morrow has all the potential to be a deep threat for Mississippi State, but he has to become more consistent on the field and in practice. He dealt with a bad knee last year, but will have much more responsibility this fall. Junior-college transfer Jeremey Chappelle enrolled this spring and has a chance to start. He could provide another deep threat for the Bulldogs, too. Getting junior Michael Carr back helps, too.
If the 2013 Rimington Trophy watch list is any indication, the SEC will be stout up the middle next season on the offensive line.

The Rimington Trophy is awarded each year to the top center in college football, and nine of the 44 players on the preseason watch list are from the SEC -- which is the most in the country.

Alabama's Barrett Jones won the award last season.

Here's a look at the nine SEC centers on the 2013 list:
Barrett JonesNed Dishman/Getty ImagesA move to center shouldn't slow Alabama's Barrett Jones, last season's Outland Trophy winner.
Our preseason SEC position rankings continue with the big uglies. The real muscle down in the trenches. Offensive lines are crucial in every level of football, but teams seriously do live and die by the play of their offensive lines in the SEC.

Past rankings:
On to the SEC's offensive line groups:

1. Alabama: Four starters return (with 95 combined starts), there's size, there's athleticism and this line just screams first-round NFL talent, starting with mammoth tackle D.J. Fluker and guard Chance Warmack. Reigning Outland Trophy winner Barrett Jones is moving to center, but with his versatility he should excel there. Add former top recruit Cyrus Kouandjio at left tackle and this is arguably the country's top offensive line.

2. LSU: Like Alabama, this line is full of experience, as four starters return and so does Josh Dworaczyk, who was granted a sixth-year after a knee injury caused him to miss all of 2011. Some think he was LSU's best lineman before last season began. Tackles Chris Faulk and Alex Hurst are two of the best in the league and center P.J. Lonergan is tough to beat. Former highly-touted recruit La'El Collins should also contend for time this fall, too.

3. Texas A&M: This could be the strength of the team. Left tackle Luke Joeckel is a future first-rounder, while right tackle Jake Mathews has All-SEC potential. Senior center Patrick Lewis provides a very sturdy anchor in the middle. Guards Jarvis Harrison and Cedric Ogbuehi are young, but both got good experience last year, as Harrison started five games and Ogbuehi started six. Depth could be an issue, as most reserves are younger.

4. Arkansas: The Hogs have one of the better center-guard combos in the league in Travis Swanson and Alvin Bailey. Both have received preseason accolades and should be even better in 2012. Sophomore tackle Brey Cook came in with a lot of hype and if he develops in his second season, this line will be really good. Sophomore Mitch Smothers proved he can play just about anywhere and big left tackle Jason Peacock is back, but is still in the doghouse after his arrest this spring.

5. South Carolina: Replacing Rokevious Watkins at left tackle won't be easy, but the staff feels like redshirt freshman Brandon Shell might be the man for the job. He's incredibly talented and athletic and improved his blocking ability during his redshirt year. Center T.J. Johnson and guard A.J. Cann are coming off of solid seasons, but the right side has questions. Right tackle Mike Matulis started five games last year, but missed spring while recovering from shoulder surgery and right guard Ronald Patrick recorded zero starts last year.

6. Tennessee: The good news is that everyone is back. The bad news is this is the same line that was incredibly inconsistent last year in the run game, as Tennessee ranked 116th in rushing offense. However, the staff feels it has a better lineup with the emergence of sophomore Antonio Richardson at left tackle. Stud Dallas Thomas moves to left guard and Ja'Wuan James, who has started 25 games at right tackle, provides some good stability. The line has 99 combined starts and allowed just 18 sacks last year, but the proving ground with this group is establishing that it can come off the ball and be a better running team.

7. Missouri: The Tigers lost three starters from last year, but that doesn't mean Mizzou is without experience. Old man Elvis Fisher was granted a sixth year after last year's season-ending knee injury and will provide a major boost at left tackle. And three other linemen return with starting experience from last year: tackle Justin Britt, who took over Fisher's spot last year, and guards Jack Meiners and Travis Ruth. One thing to keep an eye on is the line's durability. The average weight of this group is roughly 295 pounds.

8. Auburn: Three starters return to a line that has a ton of young depth. Center Reese Dismukes is the anchor and one of the top centers in the league. Guard John Sullen and tackle Chad Slade combined for 21 starts last year. The staff really likes redshirt freshman Greg Robinson at left tackle and former top recruit Christian Westerman will compete for time after sitting out last year. Guard Eric Mack made strides this spring before he was shot near the hip during the tragic shooting that occurred near Auburn's campus in June.

9. Mississippi State: Injuries and constant reshuffling along the line caused the Bulldogs' offense to struggle for most of last season. Three starters are gone, but junior guard Gabe Jackson, who is one of the league's best, is back and so is right guard Tobias Smith. If Smith, who suffered a season-ending knee injury early last year, is healthy, this line should be very strong along the interior. Dillon Day started six games last year and returns at center, while junior college transfers Charles Siddoway and Dylan Holley are pushing for time.

10. Florida: The Gators return four starters to a line that struggled all last season. Will Muschamp said he saw vast improvement up front this spring, but tackles Xavier Nixon and Matt Patchan must show more consistency and leadership. Jonotthan Harrison is solid at center and guard Jon Halapio has improved each year. Sophomore tackle Chaz Green and impressive early enrollee D.J. Humphries will compete for time as well.

[+] EnlargeKenarious Gates
Radi Nabulsi/ESPN.com Georgia may have O-line questions, but likely none concerning junior Kenarious Gates.
11. Georgia: Yet again the Bulldogs have questions up front. Junior Kenarious Gates is very versatile and athletic and is Georgia's most reliable lineman. The staff was pleased with guards Dallas Lee and Chris Burnette coming out of spring, but a lot is riding on sophomore David Andrews making it at center. If he has to move, Burnette will have to move to center and more reshuffling will come. Inexperience is worrisome and true freshman John Theus should get plenty of chances to take one of the tackle spots.

12. Vanderbilt: Thanks to offensive line coach Herb Hand, this group was one of the most improved in the league last year. He'll have a tall task again with a lot of youth and inexperience. Left tackle Wesley Johnson is one of the most underrated linemen out there, while Ryan Seymour has been solid up front. The right side has issues and the depth is a concern. Injuries made it tough for this line to get through spring practice, and six freshmen are coming in to compete for spots during fall camp.

13. Kentucky: The Wildcats lost three starters from a line that struggled throughout 2011, but vets Larry Warford and Matt Smith are back to provide a solid center-guard combo. However, they'll be asked to help a cluster of youngsters. The left side is gone and will be replaced by youngsters Zach West (redshirt freshman) and Darrian Miller (sophomore). Right tackle Kevin Mitchell started just one game last year. Any sort of injury up front would be devastating for the Cats.

14. Ole Miss: This is arguably the Rebels' weakest position. Hugh Freeze wasn't thrilled with the line this spring, continuing to say it didn't handle the offense's tempo well. Guard Matt Hall, who had double-digit starts last year, left the team this spring. Center Evan Swindall was Ole Miss' most consistent lineman this spring, while senior A.J. Hawkins moved to guard. Comfort was an issue for everyone, and the tackle spots were filled this spring by Emmanuel McCray, who missed all of last season, and JUCO transfer Pierce Burton.
The SEC has seven players on the 2012 preseason watch list for the John Mackey Award, which is presented annually to the nation's most outstanding tight end.

Here are the seven SEC players who made the Mackey watch list:
For the full Mackey watch list, go here.

The SEC leads the nation with 10 players on the 2012 preseason watch list for the Rimington Trophy, which is presented annually to the nation's most outstanding center.

Here are the 10 SEC players:
For the full Rimington watch list, go here.
Vick Ballard isn’t sugarcoating anything.

He looks at the first two weeks of the season, compares them to what he’s seen lately from the Mississippi State Bulldogs offense, and sees a significant difference.

“We just aren’t executing like we normally have,” the senior running back said.

"It’s real frustrating because we’re the type of offense that can put up at least 40 points (a game). It’s real frustrating.”

The Bulldogs had one of the nation’s best offenses through the first two weeks of the season, averaging 588 yards in the first two games, but that was against lowly Memphis and an Auburn team that sports the SEC’s worst defense.

Against LSU and Louisiana Tech, the Bulldogs averaged just 267 yards and combined for 32 points after racking up 93 in the first two games.

[+] EnlargeMississippi State's Dan Mullen
Nelson Chenault/US PRESSWIRECoach Dan Mullen says the Bulldogs must execute on offense.
There has been a missed block here and a blown assignment there. A botched route blows up a play and a poor read sets the drive back.

Mississippi State enters its game against Georgia with a 2-2 record. More importantly, the Bulldogs are 0-2 in conference play. Expectations were much higher for this team coming into the season, but the offensive stall has some second-guessing the Bulldogs.

Two conference losses likely put a West championship out of reach, but Ballard said this team is still upbeat. The offense is confident. This team was in the exact same situation last year heading into the Georgia game. Mississippi State won that game and went on a six-game winning streak, eventually making a January bowl.

“Everyone wants to go undefeated,“ Ballard said. “We lost those two games, but the fact that we were in the same situation last year gives us confidence for the next couple of games.”

If this team wants to repeat last year’s success, the offense has to get back on track. Ballard and head coach Dan Mullen said it starts with the little things.

It’s about getting back to the basics for the Bulldogs. Mullen runs a physical spread offense because of the bruising running style of Ballard and quarterback Chris Relf. Mullen not only wants to spread you out and make you attack all 11 players, but he wants you to grind or the Bulldogs will pop you in the mouth.

That pop hasn’t been there the last couple of weeks, with Ballard getting 38 and 68 yards in games and Relf getting 30 rushing yards on 25 carries. The physicality we saw earlier from the Bulldogs isn’t there and it hurts this potent attack.

Another reason for the Bulldogs' shortcomings on offense has been the offensive line shuffle. First, starting left tackle James Carmon went down with a knee injury against Auburn, shoving freshman Blaine Clausell into the starting role.

With junior right guard Tobias Smith out for the year after suffering a knee injury against LSU, Carmon, who returned this week and worked all over the offensive line, or senior Quentin Saulsberry could get the nod at his spot. Redshirt freshman Dillon Day is expected to continue to start at center.

That means there are two freshmen on this offensive line and youth here is always a concern in the SEC. Mullen said that makes it even more important communication issues get fixed and plays know exactly when and where to be on the field, as minute mistakes can create enormous problems and that’s what the offense has dealt with in the past two weeks.

“One guy off gets you out of rhythm in the offense and it kind of really slows you down,” Mullen said. “Every time we’ve been taking shots early in the season we’ve been hitting them down the field. We’ve been just off the fingertips the last two weeks. Those issues can really start to compound, one after the other, where you don’t get into a good rhythm on offense.

“When you’re going forward and backward, forward and backward, with guys making some mistakes and not executing cleanly you get out of that rhythm and you don’t put up those huge numbers that you are when you’re in great rhythm.”

No one would blame Mullen for getting awfully close to pressing the panic button after an 0-2 start, but isn’t. In fact, he’s not ready to change much of anything offensively. He just wants to little things corrected.

“We’re not changing a whole lot of what we do because we’re not far off from where we want to be,” he said. “We have to be cleaner and execute better.”

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