"I played receiver a little bit, moving there and moving back really I know what they expect so I know how to cover it better," he says.
Fans will recall how a year ago the athletic but still not-entirely proven defensive end was abruptly assigned to offense, specifically to tight end. At the time Mississippi State's offensive staff was concerned about how losing tight ends—such as injured starter Marcus Green—and just getting more tall targets in the middle of passing patterns. The trial run ended quickly with McCardell returning to defense and regaining a place in the end rotation.
A useful place too, if somewhat limited. Playing eight games, most often on special teams, McCardell did get some turns on real defense. He only notched four tackles all season…but half of those were sacks, one each against pass-happy Houston and Kentucky. McCardell had three more hurries, too, further proof of potential as a dedicated pass rush specialist.
That hasn't changed a year later. In fact, ask McCardell what his main goal for this junior season is and the Beaumont, Texas native doesn't shy away from setting the bar high. "I want to lead the SEC in sacks!" he proclaims, proudly. Now that obviously is tall talk for a fellow who hasn't locked up a starting job.
McCardell did open August working with the first team, opposite Sean Ferguson on the other end. As camp continued fellow junior Trevor Stigers basically drew even with his classmate and at this point nobody is calling the race. Nor, really, does it matter here based on mid-August indications that coordinator—and defensive line coach—Chris Wilson likes the idea of shuttling ends in and out for all sorts of matchups. Or miss-matchups, rather. Besides, having fresh legs on the edge only makes for better pass-rushing odds.
And boy, does McCardell ever get pumped at the prospect of taking an outside stance and blazing into a backfield after the passer. It fits with Wilson's philosophy, he says.
"Well, we're an attack-front defense. We don't read, we don't wait on the offense. We attack." OK, sure, there are more technical aspects to it all…but these Dogs appreciate the basic approach already. ""What I love about Coach Wilson is he's all about attacking," McCardell says.
"Some offenses don't know how to handle that. A lot of defenses like to read so, when they see a defense attacking, getting upfield, shooting the gaps, not waiting on anything, they kind of get overwhelmed and don't know how to handle that. That's what I really like about him."
In turn Wilson likes what McCardell brings to the gameplan. He even looks like the ideal of, say, a third-and-long situation specialist designed to disrupt passing plans. Long arms, long strides mean McCardell has the range and the reach to make the quarterback unload early. He can also come out of a three- or two-point stance with equal ease. And where, say, McPhee was just about entirely situated as a true end in a four-front, guys like McCardell can take a step or two outside and throw differing looks at blockers.
Just as Wilson wants, in fact.
"He definitely likes to move his players around, whether it be drops or pass rush or movement inside. He likes us to come from all directions."
So far so good. But what of other responsibilities? McCardell mentioned defensive drops, as in coverage. It's not something his position is usually known for, but what with all the spread-type offenses proliferating everywhere defensive ends will find themselves in some cover assignments.
"Yeah, the ends drop quite a bit," McCardell says. The surprise is this guy more used to charging straight-ahead claims he has found falling backwards to his taste, too. "To tell you the truth I like it!" Maybe it's because his usual assignment is a tight end. Yes, this has meant some intense camp competitions with Green, a guy who can make any sort of d-end look lost. McCardell won't say who wins these matchups, just that it is making him better.
Having covered, so to speak, all the things a Dog d-end does in passing plays…what about the heavier duties? That is, the bare-bones and more often bare-knuckles battling in the trenches to slow and hopefully stop a big, fast SEC-style running back? This naturally is a topic of camp concern outside campus as observers wonder if these tall, fast ends have the bulk to hold the line.
Well, for the record, McCardell has added ten more pounds on his 6-5 frame since last year. Ferguson, five more. "That's Balis! He can put some muscle on you!" McCardell grins. So if these aren't 280-pound bulwarks out at end, they are stouter than many suspect. The ‘lite' label is overblown, believes McCardell.
"All that really matters is technique. If you have your technique down, your fundamentals, can't nobody really mess with you." Besides, these ends have the benefit those two big, strong, and coming-into-primes tackles Fletcher Cox and Josh Boyd who are guaranteed to tie up lots of blocking already. So it's up to McCardell & Co. to beat their single-man matchups and make the play.
"So it's not so much the players as what the coaches give the players to do. I mean, as long as we keep attacking we'll be straight."
Meanwhile McCardell is attacking the task of setting a rotation at end, with he hopes his name first on the list by September 1. It's still too close to call and will likely stay so for a while. "But the way we look at is whenever we get a chance to get on the field we just go as hard as we can; then we watch film. And whoever Coach decides to put in that spot that's who he is going to put."
Speaking of spots…does McCardell ever wish he'd had a little longer to make a case on the other side, and end, of the gameplan? Yeah, running routes and catching balls would have been fun for a change. But at heart he'd still rather chase a passer than catch throws from one.
"The way I look at it, anywhere Coach wants me to play I'm willing to play. I'm going to give 100% effort. So if you want me at d-end I'm going to play d-end, if he wants me at receiver I'm going to play receiver. But I love d-end most."