"We feel solid about the two-deep that we have because they have all played in college football games," Wilson said. "You add in this incoming class and I feel this is one of the most talented teams that I have had a chance to coach."
And yes, if any wonder. Wilson really is factoring into that proud proclamation the great big missing piece. The coach better than anyone appreciates exactly what Fletcher Cox provided over his Mississippi State career, before making the junior-jump to the NFL and an automatic eight-figure signing salary. "You can't replace a guy like Fletcher Cox, a guy who was taken that high in the draft," agreed Wilson.
"What you can do is get a group of guys who can replace a guy like him. And that is what we have this year. Instead of five or six guys that we could depend on, which is where we were last year, we now have eight to ten guys that we can depend on. We now have to make sure we have the right guys at the right positions doing the right things."
Going into preseason Wilson and Coach Dan Mullen are equally confident they have those right guys. And want to know something even more exciting? There are multiple excellent options at each position, many with SEC starts already on the resume and most with real game experience.
Heading that list is the senior booked to take over Cox's position. Of course to some extent Josh Boyd already has played that assignment, lining up alongside his classmate for three seasons. It speaks volumes for Boyd's own abilities that, while usually spotted over the center with Cox freed to attack the ball, Boyd still has scored 92 career tackles and seven sacks. In fact #97 seriously considered joining #94 in the draft, before opting for a senior season at State.
"We are excited to have Josh coming back," Wilson said. "He is a really solid, SEC player who is not yet at the point of being as dominant as Fletcher Cox was last year, but he is working toward that." Boyd has an even better chance to establish such dominance now because he looks to slide over into a gap a la Cox, leaving the nose to another Dog. Though, it needs noting, State's front-philosophy is to have interchangeable tackles able to line up both ways.
Or, more ways. One strong feature in spring scrimmaging was diverse alignments of the linemen. Besides the four-man base there were odd fronts of three or five true linemen displayed and not just in goal line or short-yardage settings. Even the base set wasn't restricted to two traditional tackles and ends, as some schemes had three interior tackles and a lone end who might take his stance an extra step-outward to create a pass rushing mismatch.
This wasn't merely restless experimenting, but genuine practices made possible because Wilson has more than numbers. He has players with the prowess to fit into all sorts of slots. The best example is the next Mississippi State star lineman. In Kaleb Euells this defense has a 280-pound (and still developing) athlete equally competent at end or tackle.
"Kaleb is experienced now," Wilson said. "He's a freshman All-SEC player who played in every game last year, so we are excited about him." Eulls didn't just play, he started every game at one end and finished with 30 tackles and a sack. It was just the first flash of his impressive talents which could make him an all-time State great at end. Except in spring ball he often shuffled inside to true tackle in both base and special sets. Eulls made plays either way, of course.
Then again Wilson could just as confidently stand-pat with the full-time tackles. He also has the choice of playing on the ball big with 280-pound P.J. Jones, bigger with 305-pound Curtis Virges…or just plain huge with Dwayne Cherrington piling 335 pounds right over a shadowed snapper. Or, should the matchup look promising, Mississippi State can throw a real twist at blockers with all-purpose lineman Devin Jones to out-quick protections.
P.J. Jones was good enough as a true freshman to get on the field each game and even start once (Louisiana Tech). Virges didn't start and played just nine games, as his development has been slower than originally hoped. But when he played last year he found his way into plays with a couple of sacks and another hurry.
"Curtis gained experience last year," Wilson said. "P.J. also played as a true freshman. Those players give you that added depth." Note that in Wilson's mind starting and subbing are equivalent towards depth. It won't be until the fourth quarter of a close game anyone gets to see who the coach really favors on the field.
And speaking of depth, the interior roster got one more piece in spring place with the early enrollment of Quay Evans, the state's top high school defensive lineman and perhaps best overall recruit. This is where a well-stocked unit showed most maybe because instead of instant impact the gifted big kid had to work his way into scrimmage rotations. Evans proved something by earning snaps with the second line by the end of camp.
Just suggesting an occasional shift of Eulls inside would have been madness in recent seasons. That Wilson can do so without blinking signifies growing confidence in what he has to work with out on the ends. Such as… "Preston Smith is a guy who played as a true freshman and is going into his second season," Wilson said. Seven tackles and a fumble forced hints at this precocious pup's potential. He and redshirt John Harris, a 2011 spring enrollee, also show something State likes in its ends now: height, as they are 6-6 and 6-5 respectively. That sort of reach ought to offer distractions to passing opponents.
Last year Sean Ferguson provided an under-appreciated 41 tackles with three sacks and three hurries off the other end. He's graduated but it appears senior Shane McCardell is ready to finally tap into all that athleticism and really make plays in 2012. McCardell had a very good spring camp. He had to.
Because there is no mistaking what winter enrollee Denico Autry brings to this defense. He was a great pass rusher at 255 pounds at the juco level, and with more senior college muscle and instruction Autry can put the pressure on passers. Wilson has compared him to another juco defensive end who made his name chasing quarterbacks, Pernell McPhee.
"Denico has played junior college football and won a national championship. He has experience and knows how to win." Autry goes into preseason the alternate to McCardell; it will surprise none if the newer end has won a starting job by September. Though, much still depends on what Wilson really wants to do with Eulls on the other end as well as how Smith and Harris keep developing.
And this doesn't even allow for any of the five designated defensive linemen signed out of high school to jump right into the 2012 mix. Sure, he already has experienced depth all over, but "If we have a guy who as a true freshman who can play, then we have to find the right role for him to play," Wilson said.
So here in summer there is justified excitement in the defensive staff meeting room over the preseason outlook. More bodies, more talent, more experience, more of just plain everything is there to work with.
"But it's not just about talent," Wilson reminded. "We, as coaches, have to make it into a great team. We have to mix and match the right pieces so that we have the right guys in there at the right time."