STARKVILLE — J.C. Brignone vividly remembers the most difficult game of his football career every day. How could the center forget something like that?
Archrival Mississippi shredded Mississippi State’s offensive line, set a school record for sacks and left the Bulldogs with an offseason full of work to do as the Rebels headed to the Cotton Bowl.
As Dan Mullen’s new spread offense debuts, the Bulldogs return three starters to a group that’s leaner and stronger. But Brignone won’t feel any better until he gets on the field and starts hitting people. Those kind of memories are hard to wipe away.
“Being from Mississippi and playing for Mississippi State, I think about it all the time because it’s our rival game,” the Pass Christian native said. “It’s the bragging rights for the whole 365 days, and that’s a big thing because it’s not only at your college, it’s at your home, it’s when you go to the store. It’s always a competition, it always bothers us. So that’s why we’ve been working so hard to get to the point where we don’t have to worry about that again.”
The Bulldogs gave up 11 sacks that day and their quarterbacks were harassed every time they dropped back to pass. It was the final unraveling of an offensive line that struggled all season after a series of misfortunes few units could have survived.
Mississippi State lost its best lineman to legal troubles before the season began. Then left tackle Derek Sherrod’s foot became infected in preseason practice, and though he returned for the second game it took a while for him to get healthy and use to a new position. Then position flip-flops began and by the end of the year the unit had no confidence, little continuity and limited success.
The 2009 season brings more than the opportunity to wipe away old hurts. With a new coach, a new kind of offensive scheme and new philosophies, a change in approach is mandatory.
“This is a new year, a new season,” Sherrod said. “We’ve got a new squad basically because we’re a different team than we were last year. Me, myself, I’m a different player than I was last year because we’re all growing and maturing. I think we’re bringing back the most people out of any unit on the team, so that’s going to be a great help for us on our offensive line.”
For coach Mullen, the numbers are helpful. But it’s more about what the Bulldogs do with those bodies.
“I like the depth of our offensive line, but that being said we need that continual improvement,” Mullen said. “Our (first-team players) need to get better. Our (backups) are pretty good, but when you have that kind of closeness it creates a lot of opportunities, and then you get improvement.”
The Bulldogs have much to improve on. The group gave up 36 sacks — about one every 11 pass attempts. Worse, the team averaged just 101.7 yards rushing per game and 3.6 yards per carry.
Those are the kind of numbers that make offensive linemen sweat, even more than usual.
Brignone and Sherrod have seen changes already for the unit, though. A new preferential body type comes with Mullen’s scheme, perfected at Florida where he was offensive coordinator for two national championship teams. There’s no room for big bellies and limited flexibility.
The dump truck that was Sylvester Croom’s power-running game has been converted to something more sporty, and the line will have to keep up with all the speed Mullen would like to unleash this year.
“It’s a little bit different because last year we had a smashmouth mentality, just basically going in and just have a ball,” Sherrod said. “This year we can use that and just build upon it because we can add a lot of the fast aspect to it with the new scheme. Basically we’re just going to have more athletic offensive linemen that can run anywhere on the field and get down and get to wherever they need to have a good block.”
Like last year, though, injuries are already causing trouble. Sherrod recently returned to practice after an ankle injury cost him time and another likely starter, Tobias Smith (ankle), is out indefinitely. That leaves the depth chart unsettled.
Despite early setbacks, Brignone believes the line is headed in a special direction this season.
“I expect our offensive line to be one of the best in the conference and soon to be one of the best in the country because we have a lot of young guys that have had to grow up fast,” Brignone said. “I think we’ll be set for a few years where Mississippi State will have a good offensive line.”
Chris Talbott/The Associated Press