Mississippi State DTs Cox, Boyd anchor defense
Mississippi State's Fletcher Cox and Josh Boyd never had the luxury of many freshmen, spending time on the sidelines while learning from older, more experienced players. Instead, the defensive tackles contributed immediately when they arrived two seasons ago.
Defensive tackle isn't the ideal place to insert true freshmen. The line of scrimmage in the Southeastern Conference is inhabited by men - many of whom are over 300 pounds and possess a nasty streak. Not surprisingly, Cox and Boyd had some rough days as the Bulldogs stumbled to a 5-7 record.
But during the process, the two became good friends, learning from each other because there weren't many older players to provide mentoring.
''When you've got two young guys, playing as early as they did in the SEC, they needed somebody to hold onto at night,'' defensive coordinator Chris Wilson said, laughing.
Now the juniors are expected to anchor Mississippi State's defense as the program enters a season with expectations not seen in Starkville in a decade. The Bulldogs are ranked No. 20 and could be a surprise team to contend in a loaded SEC Western Division that has four other ranked teams in Alabama, Auburn, Arkansas and LSU.
Mississippi State opens on the road against Memphis at the Liberty Bowl on Thursday night.
Since those tough 2009 days, Cox and Boyd have matured both physically and mentally. Cox is 6-foot-4 and 295 pounds while Boyd is 6-foot-3 and 295 pounds - plenty of mass to hang with the big boys on the line of scrimmage. And after two seasons on the defensive line, they're quite familiar with the pounding an SEC game can bring. The two combined for 14 tackles for a loss, including five sacks, last season as the Bulldogs finished 9-4.
The two roommates are from small-town Mississippi - Cox is from Yazoo City and Boyd from Philadelphia - and have bonded easily over the past two years.
''It's good to have somebody that's going through the same thing you are,'' Boyd said. ''We've grown up together on the field and now we're confident we can have two more big seasons.''
Their production was part of the reason Mississippi State's defense was among the league's best in 2010, giving up 19.8 points per game.
The return of Cox and Boyd, along with the entire starting secondary, has the Bulldogs hoping for similar success this season. But the offseason hasn't been without a few adjustments. Geoff Collins and Wilson were named the team's co-defensive coordinators after Manny Diaz left to become defensive coordinator at Texas.
Cox says he's not taking anything for granted.
''The things I did last year really don't matter anymore,'' Cox said. ''It's a new year, a new defensive coordinator. So I've got to come out play hard, not forget my technique and come out doing everything the right way.''
Wilson said even if Cox and Boyd aren't always making tackles, their ability to command the attention of three or four opposing offensive linemen frees up other for big hits. Still, Mullen would like to see the duo become more productive, especially Cox, who was named to the SEC coaches' preseason second team.
''We need to see a lot better things,'' Mullen said. ''I don't think he was an all-SEC player last year and we expect him to be that.''
While the duo may be a work in progress, Mullen is pleased that Cox and Boyd provide a good example for the underclassmen, something that wasn't always available when he became coach in 2009.
''The defensive linemen coming in now are looking up to Fletcher Cox and saying `Wow, that's a big-time guy. See how he works, see what he does, that's what I want to do,''' Mullen said.