Junior defensive lineman Fletcher Cox (94) of the Bulldogs hits the arm of quarterback Chris Relf during practice. (Photo by Lee Adams, SDN)
By LEE ADAMS
In 2010, the Mississippi State defensive line had a great season in which they finished nationally ranked in two categories.
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The Bulldog front line ranked 15th in rush defense and 17th in tackles for losses. In 2009, the Bulldog defense finished 62nd in rush defense and 89th in tackles for losses, so 2010 was a huge improvement on the front line.Â
The improvement was largely in part to the addition of Chris Wilson to the coaching staff. Wilson was co-defensive coordinator and defensive line coach.
Wilson, who is entering his second year and was promoted to defensive coordinator with the departure of Manny Diaz to Texas over the offseason, is hoping to improve even more this season.
It's early in the pre-season practices, so Wilson is busy pushing his guys to play at the level he expects but knows they are not where they need to be yet.
"I know what we are capable of, but the question is are we there yet," said Wilson. "The answer to that is no. What we have to do is play at that championship level, and that's what we're pushing our guys to do."
To improve on the success of last season, some of the Bulldogs defensive lineman have been learning from their mistakes in 2010.
"I've learned a lot of things from last season," said junior defensive tackle Fletcher Cox. "Just going back and watching film showed me what I did wrong. It made think what could I do to correct it, so I go out every day and work on the things I need to correct."
As far as Boyd, he realized the thing lacking in his case was conditioning.
"I've gotten into better shape, so now I'm focusing on the things Coach Wilson tells us like hand movement and things like that," Boyd said.
Another area both Cox and Boyd feel they need to work on is their pass rush.
"This summer I've worked on being a more dynamic pass rusher and getting off the ball quicker because it's real fun to hit the quarterback," said Cox. "I hope to accomplish a lot of great things this season. I want that All-SEC second team to turn into first team, but to do that I just have to continue to go out there everyday and grind."
Boyd has been focusing on some specific things to help become a better pass rusher.
"I'm needing to work more on my hands and feet placement on pass rush," said Boyd. "That's all I'm trying to improve on right now, but there is always something new to learn."
It's a good thing that Cox and Boyd are concerned with getting better in their pass rushing ability, because Wilson needs them to be "explosive" on the inside.
"For our pass rush to work, Josh and Fletcher need to be explosive on the inside and Shane McCardell, Trevor Stigers and Sean Ferguson need to do the same on the outside," said Wilson. "What we are looking for is those guys to dominate the guy in front of them on every play."
Beating the guy in front of them must be stressed by Wilson, because Boyd sure remembers the phrase.
"Coach Wilson always gave us the five basics, and that's what I use to try to beat the man in front of me," said Boyd. "It's like an art, but all I'm thinking when the ball snaps is beat the guy in front of me off the ball. If I beat him off the ball, I'm going to win and get past him most of the time."
The phrase "battling in the trenches" can be hard around all of college football, and winning that battle is key to having a good defense, according to Cox.
"This game starts up front, and Coach Wilson always stresses to us that the d-line has to be the head of the team," said Cox. "We have to lead at all times, and if you don't have a good defensive line then you're really not going to have a good defense."
Wilson said the defense is only going to be as good as it is up front.
"This is an upfront league, and if you're not physical up front, it's very difficult to win a ballgame," wilson said.
The defensive line has many goals this season including the entire team's goal of playing for the SEC title, but their ultimate goal is what every defense strives for.
"Our ultimate goal is to be one of the top defenses in the college football," said Boyd. "We work for that and push ourselves so we can become that."
To become one of the top ranked defenses in all of college football, a team has to practice and play at a high level at all times. Wilson expects his players to perform at a high level to help the team reach their goal of winningÂ a championship.Â
"Either you're playing to a championship standard, or you're not," said Wilson. "Everything we judge and measure is based on winning championships."
Another key to the defensive line success is Ferguson, who played in all 13 games last season and started seven games, at the defensive tackle position. Ferguson also played in 12 games in 2009, but, despite his experience, Wilson believes he can do more.
"Sean (Ferguson) is showing some maturity," said Wilson. "I believe there is another gear he can play at, and we need him to step up and be a productive guy when he steps onto the field."
The defense has been hard at work since pre-season practices began to prepare for the season and a tough first three games, which take place within 15 days of each other. However, three games in 15 days doesn't seem to bother Boyd.
"The first three games being so close together isn't going to be an issue," said Boyd. "As hard as the stuff we're doing now is, and in this heat, I think we will be prepared for those first three games and the rest of the season."
According to the USA Today Pre-Season Coaches poll, two of the the 20th ranked Bulldogs first three games includes top 25 ranked teams in No. 19 Auburn and No. 4 LSU. Therefore, the defensive line will be challenged early on and for the rest of the season as the Bulldogs will also face, No. 2 Alabama, No. 12 South Carolina, No. 14 Arkansas and No. 22 Georgia. Â