March 22, 2010 4:50:00 PM
STARKVILLE -- Often unnoticed through last year''s edge-of-your-seat Mississippi State football season, the Bulldogs offensive line became the team''s most cohesive unit.
The same is expected this season, though the main beneficiary of the offensive unit''s drastic improvement last year, Anthony Dixon, will be earning an NFL paycheck instead of setting more team records.
Dixon rushed for 1,391 yards and ranked among the nation''s best in yards per game and total rushing yards last season. The Bulldogs rushed for 2,731 yards as a team, which ranked 13th in the nation.
While Mississippi State finished with a modest 78th national ranking in total offense, it was a vast improvement from the previous season when the Bulldogs were ranked in the 100s.
Points were up, too, from 15.2 to 25.6 per game. That, due in large, was because of Mississippi State''s option-based running game and the success it created in head coach Dan Mullen''s first season.
But, with senior backs Dixon, Christian Ducre and Arnil Stallworth gone heading into Tuesday''s spring practice opener, how much the Bulldogs offense will change remains to be seen.
However, the source of continuity for Mississippi State''s offense will be its offensive line as left tackle Derek Sherrod, center J.C. Brignone, left guard Quentin Saulsberry and right tackle Addison Lawrence return after each started all 12 games last year.
And, with the senior quarterback Tyson Lee gone, there''ll be competition under center between Egg Bowl hero Chris Relf, who rushed for 500 yards last season, and high school all-American and redshirt freshman Tyler Russell.
Despite the new faces that will be in the huddle this season and the uncertainty it will bring, Saulsberry said it won''t affect the offensive line''s confidence.
"Really, as an offensive lineman, you shouldn''t have to think about who''s back there," Saulsberry said. "There''s only two things you can control -- attitude and effort. Everything else will take care of itself."
MSU junior Robert Elliott, based on experience, will be the frontrunner in the backfield along with redshirt freshman Montrell Conner, who is built in the Dixon mold at 6-foot-2, 220 pounds. Then, there''s junior college''s leading rusher from a year ago, Vick Ballard, who enrolled early and will take part in spring drills.
The team has options though Ballard and Conner have yet to log a carry at MSU and Elliott has a career total of 312 rushing yards.
"They seem excited about the season and when you have guys behind you who are excited about you blocking for them and doing your job so they can get yards, score and win the ball game, it''s easy to get excited," Saulsberry said.
Saulsberry, who took his lumps as a freshman after being inserted into the starting lineup at right tackle, said the offensive line is more comfortable heading into spring ball this season despite expectations being greater for the group. The unit saw results in the new system, and when you''re running to the end zone to celebrate a score instead of trotting to the sideline as the punt team comes on, confidence rises.
In last season''s Egg Bowl against Ole Miss, Mississippi State ran the ball 50-plus times, fittingly capping a season in which the Bulldogs relied on the run after its passing game never really took flight. It was during the Egg Bowl when Saulsberry said he noticed a "mean streak" in his play and from his teammates knowing the Rebels knew what was coming but were unable to stop it.
"There''s nothing wrong with being nice and humble, but any job you have you have to take it with relentless effort," Saulsberry said. "A lot is expected out of all of us, knowing we''ve been a year into the system now. We''re used to coach (line coach John) Hevesy, and really the personality has changed in everybody. We know how to get it done.
"When it comes down to it, fourth-and-1, who''s going to be the man and who''s going to make the play? We didn''t get it done last year, so that''s been a big focus this year."
As productive as the ground game was last season, the passing game is expected to improve this year with the return of receivers Chad Bumphis, Leon Berry and tight end Marcus Green. Mississippi State never really saw what sophomores Chris Smith and Brandon Heavens could do in limited action last season, and redshirt freshman Ricco Sanders will look to use spring practice as a springboard for playing time in the fall.
Bumphis, who said he and Mullen have talked about the possibility of playing some running back this season, believes there will be added focus for the receiving corps and passing game with the departures of Lee, Dixon, Ducre and Stallworth.
"The lack of experience at running back, I think we''re all going to have to be a lot better," Bumphis said. "I think we''ll have to throw a little bit more, and without those three running backs here I think it''s going to change (wideout''s) games a whole lot."
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