STARKVILLE – When Derek Sherrod arrived at Mississippi State, he brought with him a 6-foot-6 frame and four stars from Scout.com.
That was a year after J.C. Brignone came to MSU as an undersized defensive tackle, albeit one with three stars attached to his dossier.
Both are seniors now – Brignone redshirted – and both are most vital in making sure the Bulldogs’ offense takes another step forward under second-year coach Dan Mullen.
Brignone is the ringleader at center, to which he switched early on and is now entering his third year as starter. Sherrod is the jovial giant, if you will, a consistent force at left tackle who has lived up to his star rating.
As another summer drags on – preseason camp begins Aug. 3 – Brignone and Sherrod are working to perfect an offensive line that made perhaps the biggest strides of any position group last fall. Strength and conditioning coach Matt Balis has made them stronger and tougher, and that goes with a wealth of combined experience – the current first-stringers have 82 career starts between them.
“I think we could be one of the top offenses in the country,” Brignone said.
Last season, MSU saw its offense blossom quickly in Mullen’s spread schemes. It led the SEC in rushing (227.6 yards per game), and State averaged 25.6 points per game, ninth in the league but a 68.4 percent increase over 2008.
Anthony Dixon, the school’s all-time leading rusher, deserves much credit, but so does the offensive line.
“It’s a 50-50 effort,” Sherrod said.
That balance of effort might have to shift a bit this fall, as MSU seeks to replace Dixon with a committee of backs. Brignone is doing all he can to assure his unit’s ready, leading offseason workouts and keeping the linemen together – on the field and off – whenever possible.
Bonding is key.
“And that way, when you get on the field,” Brignone said, “you don’t have a problem with the guy next to you, and you know that everything’s going to work out right.”
Desire and fire
Brignone’s leadership can’t be overvalued. He’s married with a child and has been through more tough times than many people twice his age. The St. Stanislaus product saw his family displaced by Hurricane Katrina, and he lost his father in 2008.
“He comes out there, and he demands everything that a center needs to demand (of teammates), and he calls everything right for us,” Sherrod said. “He’s going to make sure that he has his job done and make sure everybody else has their job done.”
Brignone has developed into one of the best centers in the SEC, and that’s thanks in no small part to the relentless Balis.
And while Sherrod might have more natural talent, the 305-pounder from Caledonia has benefited from Balis as well.
“It’s something as a football player to be just as (physically) strong, but to be mentally strong as well as physical is a great help,” Sherrod said. “Once you hit that barrier on the field, it becomes hard. But if you can push past that, then it’s a great thing to be a football player.”
One thing about Sherrod: He’s not your prototypical fiery offensive lineman. At least not off the field.
“It’s kind of funny,” Brignone said, “because a lot of people say that you don’t see Derek as the big type of crazy, mean guy, but when he comes on the field, you kind of see a little change in him, a little attitude change. I think we just have to pull it out of him sometimes to get it in practice and stuff.
“I think he’s a gamer when it comes to attitude and stuff like that.”
Brignone’s desire and Sherrod’s fire will play huge roles this year. They’ll be the two pushing teammates the most, and the ones pushing ahead to open holes and protect the quarterbacks.
There are questions at running back, at quarterback, at receiver. MSU’s offensive line is the closest to a sure thing the Bulldogs have right now on that side of the ball.
“If you know that everybody on the offensive line is together and they can just mesh with each other, then everything’s going to come together,” Sherrod said, “because you have to be one unit instead of five individuals out there on the field.”
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Brad Locke/NEMS Daily Journal