Patience Pays Dividends for Clemons, Beedle & Sokol
Fifth-year senior offensive guard Brandon Clemons, sophomore offensive lineman David Beedle and sophomore tight end Matt Sokol have blossomed this spring, and all are expected to be major contributors in 2016.
By Steve Grinczel, MSUSpartans.com Online Columnist | @GrinzOnGreen
EAST LANSING, Mich. – Here’s the thing about Michigan State football. If you can manage being simultaneously anxious and patient, your time will come.
It could be said that as red-shirt sophomores, Beedle and Sokol are right on schedule. While they’ve seen classmates Brian Allen, Malik McDowell and Montae Nicholson become household names a year or two ahead of them, they’ve obligingly waited their turn behind superior predecessors.
Clemons, on the other hand, has been on the clock for more than five years while undergoing the position-switch process – a la Tony Lippett and Jeremy Langford – along the way to discovery. Upon the expected NCAA approval of a sixth season of eligibility, the 23-year-old Clemons could be gearing up for his second career start at the same time former members of his 2011 recruit class, Trae Waynes and Taiwan Jones, get set for their second NFL campaigns.
Collectively, Clemons, Beedle and Sokol are new old names poised to show up prominently on the radar screen in ’16.
Clemons is holding serve at right guard, in place of the departed Donavon Clark, heading into Saturday’s Green-White Spring Game at Spartan Stadium.
“In the beginning, it was rough because I was hurt for two years,” Clemons said. “It was a slow way up, but I’ve grinded it out; I’ve worked hard every single day and finally it’s my time to shine.”
Clemons, who already has a degree in psychology and is pursuing another in sociology, began his career with the defensive line and as a red-shirt sophomore had a strong showing with two tackles against Stanford in the 2014 Rose Bowl victory.
He achieved his first 15 minutes of fame by playing both ways against Eastern Michigan the following season, but spent most of his time learning the offense. Clemons’ only career start came when MSU lined up in the “jumbo package” for its first play against Baylor at the Cotton Bowl.
After playing extensively as a backup in 13 of 14 games last season, Clemons is putting his half-decade of knowledge and wisdom to good use as offensive line coach Mark Staten works on replacing Clark along with two All-Americans, left tackle Jack Conklin and center Jack Allen.
“I’ve been starting at right guard all spring, so I feel pretty confident about my spot, but I’m still trying to get better every day,” Clemons said. “When I’m on the field, I’m fearless. I just throw my body around, going 100 miles per second.
“I’ve always been a flying-around-type-of person and if I make a mistake, I’m going to do it at 100 percent. But now I know what I’m doing and I think that’s helped me elevate my play. Plus, I understand the defenses I’m going up against. I’ve learned so much, and overall, l I think we’re going to be all right (at offensive line).”
One thing Staten never has to worry about Clemons doing is giving up on a play, a game or a season.
“He’s persevered,” Staten said. “He has just continued to fight the fight, and believe and understand, and work. He has always bought in, but now he understands to have a place and to have a legacy that this has to be his time.
“The biggest thing about Brandon now, compared to back then, is he understands that there are a lot of expectations, not only by this coaching staff, but by his peers, his O-line mates and even by himself now. I think that last one is what’s really changed because I don’t know that he had a lot of expectations for himself, and now ,he’s playing like we thought he could when he came over and he’s doing it consistently.”
While Clemons hasn’t ruled the possibility of seeing spot duty as a pass-rusher on defense, at 6-foot-3, 302 pounds, his athletic ability is what catches Staten’s eye.
“Now, we’re seeing him reach for it,” Staten said. “You can have all the ability in the world, but if you’re not reaching for it, if you’re not trying to get towards your ceiling of that killer word, ‘potential,’ then you end up being a guy that coulda, woulda, shoulda.
“He now knows that ‘This is on my shoulders,’ not on Donavon Clark or Jack Allen’s. So, it’s time for him to put up or shut up and he’s been putting up this spring, which is very exciting. When Brandon decided, and we agreed we wanted him for a sixth year – because a lot of it has to do with his own belief in himself – we were thrilled because at the end of season we were saying, ‘OK, Brandon can do this,’ and that wasn’t always the case.”
Beedle’s name was mentioned often last season as Staten mixed-and-matched starters and backups while compensating for playing time missed by Conklin, Jack Allen and starting right tackle Kodi Kieler due to injuries.
Consequently, as a known entity, Beedle doesn’t exactly qualify as one of spring’s completely unexpected surprises. However, his steeper upward trajectory has taken him to new heights quicker than even he may have thought possible.
“I think I’ve made some pretty big strides with a lot of technique things and little things you need to do to take your game to the next level,” Beedle said. “Just learning the offense has helped a lot, and that’s probably been the biggest thing – getting a full understanding of the scheme of things.”
Beedle has been working with the No. 1 offense at left guard, which allows Staten to put Brian Allen in his brother’s old spot at center, and Dennis Finley, a red-shirt junior who sustained a broken leg after making his first start against Purdue and missed the final nine games, at left tackle. Or, with Beedle at left tackle and Allen at left guard, Kieler might be at center and fifth-year senior Miguel Machado at right tackle.
In one combination or another, Staten will have his best, and freshest, five on the field at any given point in the game. “We’ll see how it shakes out in the fall and go from there,” Beedle said. “There’s always been great talent coming through here. We’ve always got older guys teaching the younger guys, we’ve got a great strength staff and coaching staff, and just as you progress as a man everything comes with it.”
Beedle satisfied his appetite last season with 150-200 snaps on offense and additional plays as a member of the field-goal unit, but he’s even hungrier this season.
“It was good to get my feet wet and see the true speed of the game,” he said. “For me, it’s been a big maturity thing. I’m just trying to keep my head down and do what I’ve got to do.
“We’re at big-time place with a lot of big-time players going on to the next level, so that’s just the place the rest of us are put in. We expect to be held accountable and when they need us to go into the game be able to perform at that high level. I feel that if you just stay on that path, everyone here has a chance to do great things.”
Staten feels like he’s finally secured a connection with Beedle.
“Beedle’s his own cat, his own guy,” Staten said. “He’s a unique bird and it took me a little while to figure him out, just like it took him a little while to figure me out. I think that’s part of it.
“He has had two very good scrimmages and the great thing about him is he can play guard or tackle, and he’s excited about those challenges and it’s fun seeing that. He’s solidifying himself as a starter on what should be a very athletic offensive line.”
Furthermore, because Beedle projects as a three-year starter, he could be a key to maintaining the continuity Staten has established with an eight-man rotation that not only heightens the competition for playing time, but also mitigates the effects of untimely injuries and prepares backups to take over in the future.
“He’s going to be just a red-shirt sophomore next year, so there’s a lot, a lot, a lot that we can get from him over the course of the next three years because he’s an extremely intelligent football player,” Staten said.
Because both of Sokol’s parents, David and Kimberly, competed as athletes at West Point, co-offensive coordinator and tight ends coach Jim Bollman has no problem envisioning him standing at attention while wearing a cadet’s gray dress coat.
“There’s not very many guys that I’ve coached through my 40 years that are like him, No. 1 who are that composed and able to keep themselves in that kind of mental frame without having some type of what we call being off kilter,” Bollman said. “Whatever the strain of a situation is, he can bring himself together, get back in the saddle and go again. It never bugs him or slows him down.
“Those guys are very easy to coach. He’s a total reflection of his parents.”
Sokol appears to be poised for the same type of breakout performance Paul Lang had last season as a fifth-year senior – he went from being primarily a run blocker who had one reception for minus-1 yard in 2014 to catching 11 passes for 129 yards – but as a redshirt sophomore.
However, the process is reversed for Sokol, who is accustomed to having the ball in his hands from his days of playing quarterback at Rochester Adams High, but needs to master blocking aspects of playing tight end.
“He’s what I’d call, for lack of better words, an energetic guy,” Bollman said. “He works very, very hard every day. He never goes out there without being very meticulous and conscientious about everything that’s going on, always asking questions and learning. As a result, he keeps multiplying that effect every day and is getting better and better.
“The thing he’s really starting to get the hang of now is being a good blocker. That’s the fun part for me to coach him in because he takes great pride in it and he’s going to end up being a really good blocker. He edges more and more to that every day, and no doubt, he’s going to be a big contributor for us this year.”
With defensive coordinators constantly substituting linemen during the course of a game, Sokol solves the problem of losing Lang from Bollman’s rotation. It’s nearly impossible for any collegiate tight end to block, run pass routes and change formations with maximum efficiency, Bollman explained, while matching the energy and intensity of constantly refreshed defensive linemen play after play. Sokol is a welcome complement to fifth-year senior co-starters Josiah Price and Jamal Lyles.
“I wouldn’t necessarily say a light came on for me this spring because every day I’ve been here I’ve just tried to take the approach that I give everything I’ve got and try to get better,” Sokol said. “Obviously, I wouldn’t be in the position I’m in now without the help of Josiah, Paul, (2014 senior starter) Andrew Gleichert, and Jamal – all those guys ahead of me who have really pushed me and led me to this point.
“I’ve shown that I understand the offense. My biggest strength is just being a physical player and going 100 percent every play. I think I’ve come a long way in my blocking.”
Said Bollman, “He’s just an aggressive guy and an intense competitor all the time in everything he does. He has his own bar raised very high and always wants to do better.”
Sokol’s temperament dovetails seamlessly with MSU’s meritocratic approach to playing time.
“I think Michigan State has established, and drills into you, that you bring everything you’ve got each day,” he said. “It is difficult and there are when you’re like, ‘Man…,’ but you just have to put your head down and push through. In our room, the best specific example of that is Paul Lang, who didn’t played a lot early in his career but just became such a dominant player and a huge part of our offense last season.
“Definitely there’s a patience factor because guys know that nothing’s handed out here. Everything that is received here is earned. You’ve got to wait for your time, but you have to be ready to take advantage of the opportunity when it comes.”
After waits of various lengths, Clemons, Beedle and Sokol appear to be ready.