Bulldog business begins Monday in earnest with transition from the north campus practice fields to the infamous Farm. It’s a regimen Coach Dan Mullen devised back in 2009 and has become Mississippi State’s signature portion of preseason. This is when full padding is pulled on, and players are put down to the ground.
”I’m really looking forward to getting in the pads,” said Clayborn. “We have a very physical team so I’m looking forward to it.”
Spoken like a lineman. Though more than this offensive guard relish August opportunity to begin real hitting. It was a longish sort of summer and while doing individual and group drills on their own burned off-season energy this, this is real football.
And, a real opportunity for Clayborn to settle into his sophomore identity. The position is clear enough for the early-camp moment. “I’m working at left guard primarily,” he said, the same spot he spent spring. And spent it with the first team too, due to the rehabilitation process for Justin Malone and thus Ben Beckwith running all camp at first right guard.
Now Malone is back and in the #1 lineup at the spot he started 2013. Senior Beckwith has shifted over to left guard as a result. And Clayborn? “I’m just trying to learn the ins-and-outs and listening.” That, and building on the live action given him during the true freshman season. Maybe had Malone not gone down on opening day Clayborn wouldn’t have been activated.
Or maybe he would have anyway because this is a precocious sort of pup. He would have redshirted if asked, but…
“I came in expecting to play,” Clayborn says frankly. “That’s what I’m here for, I came here to play.” And he got to, a very unusual opportunity for a true frosh on the offensive line. Then again this isn’t your usual young blocker. It isn’t a coincidence Clayborn is being groomed at Gabe Jackson’s old position because he is already being compared in pure potential to the graduated State star.
Clayborn won’t claim such status for himself understand. Not yet anyway, he has a lot left to learn before even considering himself established as a SEC blocker. Fortunately he’s got a great group of instructors in the meeting room and on the field, and not just Beckwith and Malone. “Dillon Day, Blaine Clausell, Damien Robinson also. All those guys help me learn and get everything down along the way.”
Remember, in Mississippi State’s system a position is not an identity. If you want to work in this line, you’d best grasp the entire unit’s scheming even if you aren’t playing a couple of positions. Because it’s always possible…you just mind find yourself lining up in an unexpected spot.
“I snapped some in the spring,” Clayborn reminds. “And played right guard last year as a freshman. All our guys are versatile in the interior.” Because they have to be. Hevesy considers guards and center(s) interchangeable after all. And now in 2014 that might extend to guards and tackles, if Malone makes a serious bid for the open right tackle job.
”Pretty much everybody on our line is able to change and move around,” Clayborn says. For now he’s working purely at left guard in the early days of preseason but it’s a pretty safe guess he will find himself taking some snaps on the right, and making some snaps too. After all, in 2010 and again in 2013 injuries showed how valuable versatility is up-front.
So is muscle, and this is where Clayborn stands out. He is attested as the strongest man on the roster, even by classmate and class clown Chris Jones who briefly claimed he and Clayborn can compare numbers…before laughing and admitting the truth. Clayborn is a killer in the weightroom. “My sanctuary,” he calls it, joking that lifting beats running gassers any day.
At the same time this fast-maturing youngster knows the limits of muscle. “Strength plays a big role on the field but the biggest thing for me is getting the mental things down. Because the physicality is there.” Is it ever. Yet to Hevesy, this sophomore is special in other ways that only magnify his on-field potential.
”Jamall is a kid who had a little different upbringing,” the coach says. “When you go to how he got to where he was and what he had to do to get in (Jackson Academy) academically, he’s a kid that had to push himself to success.” The internal strengths which pushed Clayborn to high school success and a place on this SEC roster are exactly what State coaches want in all players, and linemen in particular given the self-sacrificing nature of their task.
So, “When you see those kid who love football, who love working, who love the werightoom--because everybody loves game day,” Hevesy says. “That’s when you find the guys that want to be great.”
Clayborn may become great. Right now he’s aiming at becoming good enough to receive regular snaps. In seasons-past there have been rotations on the front but mostly to protect gimpy Dogs or in replacement situations. Clayborn might make room for himself on his own merits, and he absolutely is pushing Beckwith and Malone and other guard candidates with the best camp competition at State for many years.
And speaking of competition, there’s another reason Clayborn is eager for real hitting. He can’t wait to re-measure himself by an outstanding group of defensive linemen.
“We have the best defensive line corps in the country,” claims Clayborn. “Just playing against those guys, they’re all physical and big and have great athletic ability. It’s just a great opportunity to get better every day going against those guys.” And OK, maybe it’s because they were part of the same freshman class, and both got activated as rookies. But if Clayborn tabs Jones as his favorite challenger in practices, it’s understandable.
“I mean all of them are pretty good! But Chris Jones is one of the elite. He’s young like myself and we’re both learning along the way. But he is pretty good, for sure.”
On top of this, scrimmaging isn’t just a physical test for Bulldog blockers. Their minds are stressed to the limits on every snap by whatever Geoff Collins comes up with. “It’s good to go against the best defensive coordinator in the country day-in and day-out.”
The first day-on the Farm field is directly ahead for Clayborn and Co., and this kid can’t wait. It is more than the thrill of camp competition that has Clayborn motivated though. He’s excited for what the 2014 offensive line as a whole can become.
”Oh, we can be very stout. I’m just excited, we’re taking each day at a time and listening to the schemes Coach Hevesy has, what Coach Mullen has to say, listening to the quarterback staff. We’re trying to take it each day at a time.”