With Cox gone, burden falls on unproven players
Published: Friday, March 30, 2012
Updated: Friday, March 30, 2012 08:03
As Mississippi State coaches prepare for the upcoming football season, they continue to try to develop quality depth at every position on the team.
With defensive tackle Fletcher Cox bypassing his senior season in order to enter the NFL draft, defensive end Sean Ferguson graduating and defensive end Trevor Stigers giving up football, MSU defensive line coach Chris Wilson has important positions to fill if the Bulldogs’ defense is going to perform up to the lofty expectations some have for it.
Wilson said he thinks Cox can be replaced, but it is going to take more than one player to make up for his production.
“It is going to take more guys playing their roles,” Wilson said. “You don’t just replace Fletcher Cox with another guy; you are going to have to have five or six guys step up and play probably 2 percent better, and if we can get five guys doing that, we just got exponentially better. It is going to have to be a collective effort.” The departure of Cox, Ferguson and Stigers allows underclassmen such as Preston Smith, P.J. Jones, Curtis Virges or junior college transfer Denico Autry to earn starting roles.
MSU head coach Dan Mullen said everyone will be given plenty of chances to earn a spot this spring.
“Some of the guys that have gotten fewer reps in the past are going to get a lot more reps in the spring, so they can get caught up, and we are ready to go when we come around to the season,” Mullen said.
Of all the players expected to step up along the defensive line, Autry will be getting the most hype. A heralded defensive end signee out of East Mississippi Community College, Autry has the size and speed needed to make an immediate impact along a defensive line which often struggled rushing the passer last season.
Mullen said he expects Autry to make an immediate impact next season.
“That is a guy we have to get ready to play,” Mullen said. “He is a really good athlete. Once he figures out you have to know the scheme, get down your fundamentals and not just play on raw athletic ability, he will have an opportunity to see significant improvement.”
Autry said he is not afraid to admit he has a ways to go before he is playing up to his ability.
“I know about one or two installments, but with the rest of it, I am just kind of lost. I feel as if I am a little behind, but I am working on it. I just try to study as much as I can,” Autry said. “Josh Boyd and I talk a lot; he helps me a lot.”
Along with Autry, Wilson also praises Boyd’s leadership qualities.
“I’ve seen Josh (Boyd) really step up as a leader. That is the biggest thing,” Wilson said. “He had the option, obviously, to make the same decision as Fletcher did, and he wanted to come back because he knows he has more to prove in college. I’m excited about him.”
Boyd, who has been a stalwart along the defensive line since he arrived as a freshman in 2008, said this offseason has been somewhat of an adjustment for him.
“I’m getting used to it. I’ve never really been a vocal leader, so I have to step up and help these guys out,” Boyd said. “I was a pretty good player last year, you know me and Fletcher together, so now that he is gone, I have to step up and be a role model to these guys. I try my best to encourage them because the transition from high school to here can be rough. And some of the younger guys are still trying to get their feet in the ground.”
Anchoring the middle of the defense along with Boyd will most likely be sophomore defensive tackle Jones, of whom Wilson said he thinks highly.
“P.J. (Jones) is really stepping up. He is a guy going into his second season, who I really expect big things from. He has all of the tools physically, and he is up to about 290 lbs. He knows our scheme, and he knows our fundamentals. I’m really excited about him,” Wilson said.
With many young and inexperienced players being counted on to replace the production of those departing from the unit, the defensive line will be a position to watch all spring and fall for the Bulldogs.