STARKVILLE — Tommy Champion’s introduction to meaningful college football snaps came against No. 1 Alabama. He wasn’t thrown into the fire out of necessity; he earned the right to be on the field with the Crimson Tide, so Mississippi State offensive line coach Marcus Johnson found a way to put him there.
Most offensive line coaches work hard to find the best configuration of five linemen and leave it that way, allowing that given unit to build continuity exclusively with one another. No. 18 MSU has gone the other way, going as far as to rotate four offensive linemen off its bench in the second half of the season. Johnson is breaking the mold yet sees no drawbacks.
“For me, if it’s not a big drop-off, why not play them?” Johnson said. “Especially if they’re doing the right things, if they compete, they’re working hard. To me, if you earn the right to play, you deserve to play. They know me by now: if you have a bad week, you don’t show up to that, you won’t play. That’s how I operate.
“Obviously everything final say goes to the head coach, but that’s how I’ve operated to this point.”
The first rotational piece was junior tackle Tyre Phillips, who rotated in both at right tackle in relief of Stewart Reese and left tackle in relief of Greg Eiland. That rotation started as early as the fourth game of the season against Kentucky.
Since then, Johnson has introduced fellow junior tackle Champion in a similar role, plus junior Michael Story and sophomore Dareuan Parker at guard. Johnson said he played as many as eight and nine linemen when he was the offensive line coach at Duke, where he was before coming to MSU, and he continues to do it here for more than the simple fact that the players have earned it.
“I do believe in program developing, it’ll help those guys out next year,” Johnson said. “Once (center) Elgton (Jenkins) and (guard) Deion (Calhoun) leave, it won’t be those guys’ first time in the fire. It’s about experience and the more reps they get, the more experience they get, the better they’ll become.
“It keeps the room hungry, it keeps the backups locked in, knowing and understanding that I’m one play from getting in, it keeps your room competitive. Hopefully they don’t get the opportunity to go through the motions on a week to week basis.”
It certainly had that effect on Champion.
In most scenarios, Champion is the kind of player that would not play any meaningful snaps this year. It would have been an important opportunity lost, considering he already used his redshirt after coming to MSU from Copiah-Lincoln Community College. 2019 will be his final season as a Bulldog and going through 2018 with nothing to show for it would have been a blow.
In this system, he knew he had the opportunity to get on the field, so it forced him to critically self-evaluate.
“He said before he wanted to rotate guys, but he didn’t feel I was ready for it,” Champion said of Johnson. “I needed to mature during the season and earn my reps.
“It felt great. Like a lot of hard work had paid off. When you love the game like I do, you put a lot of effort into it.”
Best Champion can tell, effort is the best way to get on the field with Johnson making the decisions. It behooves one to constantly stay prepared, and he takes the initiative to lock on to what Reese is doing while he’s on the field so he can emulate it once it’s his turn.
Bulldog offensive linemen also have to stay locked in to avoid the one potential pitfall of this rotation: communication.
One reason the traditional offensive line coach trends toward sticking with one group of five is the continuity that group can form over time, in theory making the communication seamless. Johnson has a way of combatting that with the moving pieces.
“For one, I try to keep calls and communication simple,” Johnson said. We try to stay away from adding more terminology and more calls within our room, within the offensive line. A lot of our plays tend to have the same calls. That way, we’re not getting confused and we know what call works for what combination.”
This way, MSU has the same affect of five guys playing together all the time, but doing so with as many as eight or nine.
The coaching staff hopes the benefits of that strategy will show in the future, as the development process for its current backups receives a jumpstart. Head coach Joe Moorhead sees some current benefit for it, too.
“The thing that I like the most with what Coach Johnson’s doing is it mirrors what we’re doing with our defensive line: we’re getting a bunch of guys in there, the ability to keep people fresh, particularly at the latter stages of the game.”
Follow Dispatch sports writer Brett Hudson on Twitter @Brett_Hudson