August 8, 2013 10:11:20 AM
Matthew Stevens - [email protected]
STARKVILLE -- Dan Mullen grew up a die-hard Boston Red Sox fan in suburban New Hampshire.
Maybe that's why the Mississippi State University football coach couldn't wait to use a baseball analogy to describe sixth-year offensive lineman Tobias Smith.
"We even have Tobias (Smith) sitting in the bullpen if we need him," Mullen said Aug. 1.
But Mullen seems to be the only one publicly willing to talk about the possibility Smith will play for the Bulldogs this season. Smith, who was granted a medical sixth year of eligibility in February by the NCAA, hasn't been in uniform in the first weeks of training camp and has attended practices as a graduate assistant. The Columbus native hasn't indicated if he will return to action. MSU offensive line coach John Hevesy said Wednesday with a smile he believes Smith is an unofficial assistant coach.
"I'm able to look over to my side and see him coaching next to me," Hevesy said. "That's how I look at the situation."
Smith has had an injury-filled career at MSU. He has had surgery at least four times, and has had to deal with shoulder and ankle injuries as well as a devastating knee injury two years ago.
"I'm feeling as good as I can," Smith said Dec. 30 in Jacksonville, Fla., prior to MSU's game against Northwestern University in the Gator Bowl. "I really haven't thought about this possibly being my last game."
In the spring, Mullen seemed resigned to the idea Smith's appearance in the 34-20 loss to Northwestern was his last game as an active member of the program.
"He's going to be more in a coaching capacity in the spring with the offensive linemen than the playing capacity," Mullen said. "The final decision on him won't be made until the summer. I don't anticipate him practicing, unless he just is out on the field and says, 'Coach, I've got to play, I want to get out there and do something.' "
Teammates have admitted they have unsuccessfully poked and needled Smith in the locker room and encouraged him to come back to the team for another season. Smith isn't listed on the roster on the school's athletic website, but his No. 67 hasn't been given to a newcomer.
"We have already done all that this summer saying, 'C'mon man, you know you're coming back and you know you want to play,' " MSU junior Blaine Clausell said. "We've tried and he hasn't said yes yet."
Without Smith, MSU has five returning members on the offensive line. Sophomore Justin Malone made four starts last year while Smith recovered from injuries.
Malone said he continues to learn from Smith, who is serving as a graduate assistant as he finishes his graduate school work.
"I've listened to Tobias since the minute I got here, and I will continue to do so as long as he's willing to coach me," Malone said. "He understands how to play my position so well, and I need to be coached every day."
Hevesy enjoys the fact MSU has so much returning depth up front to go with fifth-year quarterback Tyler Russell and senior tailback LaDarius Perkins, but he knows the Bulldogs need to build depth behind the starters.
"Once you get past our five on the line that I'm worried about, it's about the entire 11 on offense," said Hevesy, who also is the running game coordinator.
The only big positional battle on the offensive line is at right tackle, where former Olive Branch High School product Damien Robinson, a four-start recruit, is challenging senior Charles Siddoway. Robinson is recovering from a knee issue that has kept him out of team drills.
"He continues to be a little dinged up and gimpy, but we expect him once he's fully cleared for contact to get himself ready to play," Hevesy said.
Junior Ben Beckwith will be counted on to be a swing lineman capable of playing center, guard, and tackle. Beckwith has played on special teams in the last 23 games, but he has the confidence to fill in immediately if needed as a backup interior lineman.
"He is going to be so valuable because God forbid anything happens to one of our starters, he'll come in at any spot and be fine," Malone said Wednesday.
So while Mullen remains optimistic about Smith's return, he also knows the offensive line may have to go on without him and do its best to set the tone for the offense.
"It's great in terms of practices because that's usually the position group that's trying to play catch up," Mullen said. "We're depending on them, and the young lineman can look at those veterans and say the expectations bar has been set at a high level already."