Mississippi State center tough

Published 1:49 pm Friday, October 31, 2008

For Mississippi State coaches and players, it’s starting to look like J.C. Brignone can handle anything.

Move him from defensive line to guard to center and he makes it look easy. Worried he won’t play because of a concussion? Don’t bother. Even the death of his father last winter — surely a devastating blow — didn’t seem to set him back.

“J.C. doesn’t show pain,” Mississippi State offensive line coach J.B. Grimes said. “When I’m talking about pain, I’m talking about both mental and physical pain. He does not show it. There’s an interior there that we don’t see. I know there’s an inner struggle. There’s got to be because I know how close he was with his father. But it’s not something you’re going to see on the exterior.”

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Turns out Brignone was just what Mississippi State’s struggling offensive line needed. Large, aggressive and unflappable, he’s handled the difficult transition to center with aplomb and has helped transform a Bulldogs line that limped into the season.

Mississippi State rushed for 169 yards and four touchdowns last week against Middle Tennessee State — the team’s best effort against a Bowl Subdivision opponent this year. The group is peaking at just the right time with Kentucky’s bullish front four up next in a crucial game the Bulldogs must win.

Brignone has graded out above 80 percent in the last six weeks. He was named the Southeastern Conference’s offensive lineman of the week after scoring 88 percent against the Blue Raiders.

“First of all we weren’t even sure he was going to play because he had a concussion coming out of the Tennessee game,” coach Sylvester Croom said. “He only practiced Thursday. He had one day of practice. So much for practice.”

Croom knows a little something about not only playing center, but excelling. He was an All-American and All-SEC snapper under coach Bear Bryant at Alabama.

“The thing that I’m very impressed with is it’s hard making a transition to center,” Croom said. “I’ve done it and I know it’s hard, especially when you have to shotgun snap and regular snap and make the calls. J.C. has done it all.”

And Croom is hard to impress. But Brignone said the coach’s presence has made the transition easier. During spring practice, he was there with tips and helped clear up problems Brignone had snapping the ball.

His transition has been lightning fast and he’s become so invaluable, he hasn’t missed a play in five games.

“I don’t like coming out,” Brignone said. “I know there are times where I wish I could come out but it’s not in my best interest to come out. I don’t like to come out because I want to help my team win as much as I can. Coach Croom is always talking about, ’One play, this play.’ If I was out on that play and it didn’t work out, I’d feel bad.”

The development of the Bulldogs offensive line has much to do with Brignone’s quick transition. Expected to be a strength coming out of spring practice, the line entered the season in disarray.

The team’s starting left tackle, Mike Brown, was kicked out of school after firing a gun on campus. His replacement, Derek Sherrod, had a foot infection that cost him three games. And Sherrod’s move from right to left tackle caused a domino effect.

Kentucky coach Rich Brooks sees a unit that’s finally coming together, however. He said the switch to the more mobile Tyson Lee at quarterback has helped and he thinks the team has found its groove in the running game.

“They’re running the as good as almost anybody in the league right now except for Georgia,” he said. “I think it’s one of the key matchups because if they’re able to run the ball and control the ball on us then we’re in for a long afternoon because we haven’t shown the ability to be able to score a lot of points.”

Kentucky’s front four is led by 310-pound Myron Pryor and averages 290 pounds.