We often hear the terms 'chemistry' and 'togetherness' when it comes to winning football programs. But in order to have things run smoothly up front, those terms must hold true all the time.
Such is the case with Mississippi State's offensive line. There is little doubt the Bulldogs entered the 2012 campaign with numerous questions surrounding the offensive line. Yet with the regular season now about to conclude, it is also of little doubt the guys in the trenches have been one of the most pleasant surprises for Mississippi State.
The reason? Well, as junior left guard Gabe Jackson quickly points out, it goes back to those terms mentioned above. Guys are a year old and more experienced, and that means they also know what to expect from each other.
"We just have a better feel for each other now and each other's technique," said Jackson. "The coaches teach us all the same techniques and the techniques may be a bit different for different positions. But it is basically the same techniques. You get used to that feel. Like when I was playing with J.C. Brignone and Quentin Saulsberry, they all had a different feel. So it takes getting used to playing with somebody and some guys have different strengths. We've done a good job of that."
Of course, experience and getting more comfortable with the offensive sets, calls and assignments was not a problem for Jackson. Along with center Dillon Day and right guard Tobias Smith, Jackson did have a ton of starting experience before this season got underway. In fact, he is the most experienced starter up front and enters the Egg Bowl with 37 consecutive starts at left guard.
But aiding the Oline development this year has been the experience gained by others that didn't have much to go on before this season.
"Really just the new guys that stepped into the spotlight like Blaine Clausell and Charles Siddoway from juco and Justin Malone helping out Tobias at right guard," said Jackson. "I think that has been a big thing for us."
And yes, Jackson has also seen improvement in his own game.
"I would say I am lot better overall," said Jackson. "My pass protection is better and I am just more comfortable with my role and with my teammates on the line."
Also noted about that pass protection, that is something the experienced Jackson and the inexperienced linemen have all had to adjust to this season. The past two season with Chris Relf at quarterback, the offense was more of a run-first attack and at times exhibited a heavy emphasis on the run.
But with Tyler Russell in charge now, the Bulldogs have thrown the ball more often this year. MSU has struggled at times to run the ball consistently but have allowed just ten sacks on the season.
"It's just a different style this year," said Jackson. "Not taking anything away that we shouldn't be better at run blocking but it is just more balanced this year. We are not just concentrated on run blocking this year like we've been in the past. We mix it up a lot more this year and that's the main thing."
Jackson and his Oline mates still have two games left on the 2012 agenda - the Egg Bowl and a bowl game at a destination yet to be determined. But looking towards next year, it's hard not to notice all the experience returning for the Bulldogs up front.
If Smith, a fifth-year senior right guard, manages a sixth year of eligibility by the NCAA, then the Bulldogs could return their entire two-deep rotation on the offensive line.
"All I can say is 'watch out'," said Jackson. "We got guys with experience and guys used to working together for more than a year now. Everyone is willing to work together and willing to get better and that's going to be a good thing next year, too."
Of course, also playing a role in returning the line in tact is Jackson's future. He has the option of bypassing his senior season and entering the NFL Draft. Considered among the top guard prospects if he did choose to do that, Jackson said he will go through the process of getting NFL feedback as to where he might get drafted.
But the odds, he added, are also good that he returns for his senior season at MSU.
"Yeah, people tell me about it or text me about it," noted Jackson. "But I really don't pay attention to it that much. It's always in the back of my mind but I try to not to think about it. I will definitely get some (NFL) feedback and do that but the odds are pretty good I will be back."