- Alex Scarborough, ESPN Staff Writer
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STARKVILLE, Miss. -- It all hinges on what happens up front. It always does in the SEC. The team that has the best offensive line usually has the most success, which is a big reason why Mississippi State was able to rise to No. 1 in the polls for five weeks last season. With veterans Ben Beckwith, Blaine Clausell and Dillon Day to lean on, quarterback Dak Prescott’s pocket was clean, the running lanes were open for tailback Josh Robinson, and the wins came rolling in.
But now that trio of seniors is gone. Mississippi State’s offensive line is in rebuilding mode, and the key to their season in 2015 is just how quickly they can come together.
Coach Dan Mullen isn’t throwing in the towel by any means, of course. But if he’s being honest, he’ll tell you that he’ll like his offensive line a lot more next year. Their lack of experience, with only Justin Malone and Justin Senior back, is worrisome to him as much as it is to anyone from the outside looking in.
“It’s not that we don’t have the guys,” he explained, “they’re just young.”
Robinson is gone. Veteran linebacker Benardrick McKinney and many of his fellow starters on defense are gone, too. But they aren’t the linchpin to Mississippi State’s season. If there’s one thing that is sure to could potentially hold the Bulldogs back from making another run at an SEC title this season, it’s the offensive line. If they don’t play well, it won’t matter how good Prescott is under center or how good the defense is under new coordinator Manny Diaz.
Prescott is doing his part, trying to make decisions faster and learn how to throw from awkward arm angles in traffic. He’s already told his linemen, “If you help me out, I’ll help you out.”
“They’re coming along,” he said of working with new starters, center Jamaal Clayborn, guard Devon Desper and tackle Rufus Warren. “We’re all comfortable with each other. We’re getting the timing down of how long I have on certain plays, certain protections. They’re stepping up. I hold them accountable. They hold me accountable.”
The timing is almost there, Prescott explained. And in terms of athleticism, “We won’t miss the guys” who are gone.
Their experience, however, will be missed. Just ask Malone, who said this spring was “rough.”
“It’s been a lot of work when you only have two returning starters,” he said. “It’s a lot to kind of move people into those spots. The returning starters have to get better and help people, and sometimes it’s a hard job. Sometimes you have bad days, but you can’t have bad days. You have to get everybody on the same page and working together and get the best five.”
For Malone, the transition has meant more responsibility. As one of two returning starters, he has had to step into a new role as a leader.
Before, with guys like Gabe Jackson, Day and Clausell, he never really had to speak up. But he’s no longer “the young guy,” as he put it.
“Now it’s at a point where I go, ‘Well, it’s me,’” he said, almost resigned to his fate. “I don’t think I have a [leadership style], but I have to develop one and help the offensive line.”
In fact, Malone isn’t the only one shouldering more responsibility this offseason. It’s emblematic of Mississippi State as a whole with so many starters gone from both sides of the ball. Backups are becoming starters and benchwarmers are stepping into contributing roles.
From Malone to Prescott to Mullen, they all agree there’s just as much talent, if not more, than last year’s team. But how that talent develops is the real question.
You can get by on talent at some positions. If you’re the fastest running back or receiver, you can run by the defense. If you’re the biggest, strongest linebacker, you can bully your way into the backfield. But up front, on the offensive line, you need more than talent. You need technique. You need experience. You need to be savvy.
Mississippi State is lacking in that department right now. If the Bulldogs hope to win many games this season, that has to change in a hurry.
With only two starters returning up front Dan Mullen has a fair amount of concern about generating a run game and protecting Dak Prescott.