August 8, 2014 12:12:14 PM
STARKVILLE -- Nearly every story written about the Mississippi State football team's prospects for this season spotlights experience as one of the Bulldogs' main strengths.
With 18 starters back and 30 players who have started at least one game returning, coach Dan Mullen has the most experienced team in the Southeastern Conference.
The offensive line is the only position where that experience wavers.
All-America left guard Gabe Jackson is now plowing through defensive lines and creating holes for the NFL's Oakland Raiders. Right tackle Charles Siddoway, who started all 13 games for the Bulldogs in 2013, also is gone. MSU's ability to find suitable replacements at left guard and right tackle could determine its success in becoming one of the SEC's elite.
For co-offensive coordinator and offensive line coach John Hevesy, the battle to claim the right tackle spot, which features Justin Senior, Damien Robinson, and Justin Malone, likely will be waged throughout fall training camp.
"Between now and Aug. 30, who is going to take that job? We'd be fortunate to have two or three of them, but that's the fight, the competition," Hevesy said. "Having competition in my room, I tell them, is great. It makes you show up every day to practice. Because if you don't, one day you are sitting in that front row as a starter and the next practice you may be sitting in the second row as a back up. It's just competition."
Malone, a 6-foot-7, 320-pounder, is making the switch from right guard, where he was a starter before an injury in the season opener against Oklahoma State ended his 2013 season. Robinson is a 6-8, 330-pounder from Olive Branch, while Senior is a 6-5, 280-pound sophomore from Montreal, Canada.
Fortunately, the Bulldogs have a wealth of experience at the other three starting spots. Senior Dillon Day has started 34 games in his career, while left tackle Blaine Clausell has 29 starts. Add to that guard Ben Beckwith, and the Bulldogs return 36 of a possible 60 regular-season starts from 2013.
Who will replace Jackson? Day believes Jamaal Clayborn, a 6-4, 315-pound sophomore, is a good place to start.
"Jamaal is a hard worker, a guy who wants to get better," Day said of Clayborn, who played in seven games as a freshman. "It's hard to replace a Gabe Jackson, but Jamaal is a guy who saw what Gabe did, saw how hard he worked, and now he is filling that role. He's asking us questions, trying to make sure he gets better every day."
While injuries hampered MSU's offensive line last season, Hevesy believes having younger players like Clayborn forced into action will provide the team with more depth.
"The big thing with losing Justin (Malone) last year in the first game and having Ben (Beckwith) forced into that role was we had two kids, that when you looked at them, you see one," Hevesy said. "When you look at Gabe (Jackson), what the kids see when they are around him is work ethic. He's another example of how you work to be successful."
While Hevesy says "Ideally, you want to have 10 guys ready to play, and I think we have about 12 or 13," Day summed up the offensive line's goals for this season.
"We are just out there making sure we look out for Dak (Prescott) and those running backs," Day said. "That's our goal every day in practice, and Dak makes us better. He's energetic, in our face, and he's not afraid to get in the mix and battle. You love blocking for guys like that."
Follow Dispatch sports writer Brandon Walker on Twitter @BWonStateBeat