March 11, 2011 8:45:00 AM
STARKVILLE -- As glaring as the Mississippi State football team''s challenge is to replace three starting linebackers, there''s just as much pressure to establish depth and to replace a cornerstone end on its defensive line.
The Bulldogs return junior tackles Fletcher Cox and Josh Boyd, but there''s uncertainty outside now that Pernell McPhee has exhausted his eligibility.
The passing of Nick Bell, Johnathan McKenzie''s decision to quit the team, and James Carmon''s move to the offensive line means veteran ends Shane McCardell and Sean Ferguson will be expected to play greater roles.
Up until last season, McCardell and Ferguson had been role players and/or parts of the frequent line rotations used by co-defensive coordinator Manny Diaz in 2010.
Ferguson has played in more than 30 Southeastern Conference games and is the team''s most experienced defensive lineman. He has 48 tackles and 10 and a half tackles for loss and a sack in the past two years.
"We''re trying to develop him into a big-time leader," defensive coordinator/line coach Chris Wilson said Thursday. "We want him to be a guy that can add energy and bring guys along with him."
With McPhee, the team''s premier pass rusher and run-stuffing end last season heading to the NFL, Ferguson believes he and the other ends can pick up where McPhee left off.
"You have to adjust. You have no choice," Ferguson said.
Still, MSU''s system asks more from its defensive players than ones who play in a typical base system. Defenders must blitz, play the run, and drop into coverage, which requires each player to be well-rounded.
Ferguson experienced that last season, but he admits it requires more attention to technique and detail.
"I went into the offseason wanting to get my speed, my strength, and my weight up," Ferguson said. "I had to become a better athlete because we play out in the open. Coaches have to be able to trust you can do it.
"Coaches prepare you, so with that preparation the game should become easy. It''s just about getting better about playing out in the open and doing everything they ask you to do."
McCardell, who played sparingly in his first two seasons and was moved to wide receiver late last season, played in eight games last season and had four tackles. He made breakthroughs as a speed rusher with a pair of sacks and three quarterback hurries.
Sensing a greater role was on the horizon for this season, McCardell added 15 pounds to his 6-foot-5 frame and entered the spring at 255.
McCardell is the Bulldogs'' quickest pass-rusher, Carmon said earlier this spring
"He had a tremendous offseason, and the weight he put on was through hard work and nutrition," Wilson said of McCardell. "He''s more confident. He''s made plays at Gainesville (against the University of Florida), at Jacksonville (against Michigan), so he''s got some tools in his toolbox that say he can do it."
The Bulldogs also return junior end Trevor Stigers, who had 19 tackles and four and a half tackles for a loss last season, and sophomore Corvell Harrison-Gay.
Stigers, Ferguson, and McCardell are slender ends who don''t offer the same dual-threat capability McPhee did last season when teams would game plan against him in the running and passing game.
Redshirt end Kaleb Eulls could provide a stout presence against the run and the versatility to play inside and out. The Yazoo County graduate bulked up to 275 pounds in the offseason and has played at end and tackle in four spring practices.
"He''s 100 percent better from a maturity standpoint," Wilson said. "When you tell a young man he''s not gonna play a year and sit out, that takes a lot to get used to when a kid''s been a superstar for so long. But he''s made the transition in the meeting rooms. He''s learning how to think like an SEC player, how to prepare with the quality of effort you need to play at this level.
"A guy with his athleticism, you can''t beat it. You get him closer to the ball, move him on the perimeter, so he''s doing a lot of good things for us."
Bulldogs wrap up final practice before spring break
After rain forced the Bulldogs to hold consecutive practices indoors, they returned to the practice fields Thursday and faced chilly weather.
While the conditions might not have been close to spring weather, the Bulldogs went through their fourth spring practice with a lengthy scrimmage session before taking two weeks off for spring break.
"It starts to get a little bit sloppier because it''s a lot of mental build-up," coach Dan Mullen said. "But I''m pretty pleased to see the improvement from day to day. Offense ended up winning, which really shocked me. They ended up winning by three points at the end right there."
Mullen said there were some sacks because of protection issues, but he praised his four quarterbacks for managing downs well and getting the ball out of their hands quickly.
"We got a little foundation, we got some work don, and got some things installed," Mullen said.
MSU will return to practice March 24.
1. Bulldogs land commitment from McLaurin at Collins LOCAL SPORTS