STARKVILLE, Miss. -- One look at Mississippi State center Dillon Day, and you get why he’s been put in the position he’s in.
The robust 6-foot-4, 300-pound wall resembles a jacked 80s rocker with long golden hair and colorful tattoo sleeves slathered on both arms.
Strap a helmet and pads on him, and Day displays ferocious features on the football field. He’s intimidating to look at and just plain scary when he gets going.
In a league predicated on the success of its line play, you need that look and that feel from your center. You need a beast in the middle to direct your line and claw his way around the trenches.
But the fifth-year senior, who has started 45 games for the Bulldogs over the past three seasons, wasn’t always such a menacing player. The first days were unbearable at times. When he was the one getting pushed during his very first set of collegiate two-a-days, he almost quit.
“It was horrible,” Day told ESPN.com in March. “I didn’t think I was going to make it. I thought that this wasn’t the life for me.”
For a player so used to dominating at the high school level, Day was trying to climb his way out of a valley as a true freshman. The former West Monroe (La.) standout was physically and mentally beaten down during his first summer in Starkville. The practices drained him, and the workouts defeated him.
The good news was that Day, who worked out at guard after playing tackle in high school, was redshirting his first season. He’d have time to grow.
But when Year 2 rolled around, Day felt overwhelmed yet again. Thinking his body would have adjusted better, Day said workouts were tougher as coaches expected more and pushed even harder because of his prospects to start; this time at center.
“We certainly didn’t make that easier on him -- yelling and screaming and grinding on him,” coach Dan Mullen said.
The idea was to break him into being that “every-down, perform-at-a-high-level guy” who was going to lead the entire offensive line. Mullen couldn’t have a soft center. He needed someone with a chip on his shoulder, someone with grit and mettle.
But Day’s tough-guy attitude that he exuded in high school seemed to wash away. The mental side was crumbling, and in turn, his physical nature suffered. But the coaches kept pushing.
Halfway through two-a-days, Day decided his time was up with the Bulldogs. But as soon as he thought he was out the door, his parents talked to him. Day said they continued the trend of pushing him, this time to strike back with his own play and attitude. They motivated him to stay and prove to himself that he could conquer the madness that was the preseason.
“My bags were packed,” Day said. “I was about to go right back to Louisiana. I stuck it out and then I got my number called my redshirt freshman year, and it’s been clicking ever since.”
Going from unranked high school prospect to three-year starter in the SEC is the definition of clicking. Day picked himself up and marched up the depth chart into a valuable role with a Bulldogs team that has enjoyed a steady climb under the guidance of Mullen.
It was his realization years ago that he had to be a fighter that helped get him to the final stage of his career in Starkville.
“I don’t scream at him as much,” Mullen said with wicked grin. “He understood that by being the center, his standard of play has to be above everybody else because he’s the leader of that line. It’s all going to go through him. Where he sets the bar, that’s where the bar’s going to be. However high he sets it, that’s where our success level is going to be.”
Day now relishes that spotlight. As he puts it, he’s “the brains of the offensive line.” He’s become a fundamental cog with help from co-offensive coordinator and offensive line coach John Hevesy. He’s learned how to own his presence up front with guidance from guys like Gabe Jackson.
So much has happened since Day packed his bags. As he looks at his final days in Starkville, he’s now looking to leave Mississippi State in another fashion.
“That’s just life. You have to stick through the battles,” Day said.
“I’m here my fifth year and just the other day I was here as a freshman trying to quit. It does hit home with you.”