STARKVILLE — Freshman starters are rare in the Southeastern Conference.
Interior defensive linemen have the worst odds of holding up to the physical quantum leap players must make to adapt.
Fletcher Cox and Josh Boyd, Mississippi State”s prized defensive tackles from Dan Mullen”s first recruiting class, played in a combined 24 games and started seven in 2009. Because of the team”s lack of depth, both hit the field earlier than coaches would have preferred.
The experience was invaluable. Cox and Boyd will have knowledge and insight that most others from their recruiting class will make up this year, or maybe the next.
Surviving the beating, controlling your emotions, and contributing is a balance that”s necessary for a freshman interior lineman, said Cox, now a sophomore.
“When the bullet goes to flying, you”ve got to know your plays and you got to be calm,” he said. “At first, it was pretty tough. I wasn”t used to going against such strong, physical guys. As the season went on, I got as physical as they got. I got in the weight room, still, during the season. I went against our line every day.”
Cox and Boyd played defensive end in high school, and their transition to playing inside meant improving short-area quickness.
Fighting off double teams and adjusting to different blocking schemes was just as crucial as adjusting physically, Boyd said.
“The double teams are tough, but at this level guys just get on you so quick.”
Cox”s biggest adjustment was adding weight to his frame, which at 255 pounds his senior year was lean compared to other interior linemen. This spring, he was listed at 300 pounds and was one of strength coach Matt Balis” first-year projects.
“I think you have to tip your hat to coach Balis for getting them ready to play,” defensive coordinator Manny Diaz said. “It”s the hardest position to step in and play right away. That guy, a 22- to 23-year-old young man — and believe me there”s a big difference — is going to hit you every play.”
Cox, touted for his athleticism and quickness, welcomed the move inside despite having the size to step in and to see an easier time out wide.
However, the Yazoo City native recognized the team”s lack of bodies at defensive tackle and opted to get on the field early — if he gained the weight.
“When I got here, I told coach Mullen I”d play wherever they put me,” Cox said. “The coaches told me I had to gain weight, and I made it important to me that I get in the weight room, get stronger, attack the workouts, eat more, eat right, and go forward.”
Junior guard Quentin Saulsberry said Cox and Boyd benefited from playing early and didn”t suffer setbacks in learning on the go. As a sophomore in 2008, Saulsberry started at right tackle. That year, Mike Brown”s dismissal from the team threw the offensive line into disarray. The offense struggled yet again and Saulsberry, who”d moved from guard, had a tough time adapting to playing the edge.
Confidence, Saulsberry said, is vital for young starters.
“Me, Fletcher, and Josh talked at one point and they were asking about what happens when you get thrown in the fire,” Saulsberry said. “I told them, ”Sometimes you think you”re going to hit a wall, but you”ve just got to keep climbing over that wall. You”ll get things thrown at you that you”re not going to understand because things are coming so early and so fast.”
“Something I had to learn this year, you have to calm down, take a deep breath, focus, and whatever happens just happens. That”s why we watch film and you improve on your technique. I think they”re taking it well.”
Diaz and defensive line coach Chris Wilson joined Mullen”s staff in the spring. They want MSU”s interior linemen to power the defense.
With the spring arrival of 6-foot-7, 340-pound James Carmon, who has impressed with his mobility and dedication to stay fit, expectations are higher. But Diaz isn”t ready to tout the Bulldogs” defensive line as the best in the SEC.
“This defensive line was part of one of the worst-ranked defenses in the SEC last year,” Diaz said. “Are there individuals who are going to be outstanding players? We think so. But it”s way to early to be comparing this line to other great D-lines; we just haven”t done it. I don”t think there”s anybody on our defensive line that thinks they have arrived or played their best ball.”
The onus will be on Cox, Boyd, and senior defensive end Pernell McPhee, Diaz said. Those players have a single season at MSU under their belts, while Carmon has a semester. In essence, the team”s defense is still young and can”t take a step back.
“They played good as freshmen, but we don”t need them to just play good anymore — we”ll just be an average defense,” Diaz said. “Both of those guys (Cox and Boyd) in Year 2, if we want to be a dominant defense we have to have a dominant defensive line. Surviving in there isn”t good anymore. You guys have to be the tip of the spear.”