August 16, 2014 4:27:12 PM
STARKVILLE - When Justin Cox, an All-America safety at East Misssissippi Community College, signed with Mississippi State's football team after his two years at Scooba, MSU defensive lineman Curtis Virges swelled with pride.
He did the same thing six months ago when Mississippi's Mr. Football, tailback Aeris Williams, signed with the Bulldogs.
But the pride Virges felt wasn't solely because his former teammates at West Point High School would now be teammates with him at MSU.
"Personally, I feel good when a West Point guy signs anywhere, it didn't necessarily have to be with us," said Virges, who enters his senior season in Starkville with 30 career tackles and three sacks. "Of course, it's a bonus that they signed with us. But I'm proud any time a West Point kid signs with a Division I school."
The additions of Cox, who signed with MSU in 2011 out of high school and again in 2013 out of EMCC, and Williams gives West Point its largest contingent of talent at MSU since the 1989-90 season. Virges and Cox are both seniors while Williams, a four-star prospect, is a freshman.
"I think it says a lot about our program that we can have three players who are not only playing at the SEC level but who will also play a lot," said West Point coach Chris Chambless. "But what I'm most proud of is that they are three outstanding young men, not just three outstanding football players."
Cox, who rushed for 1,136 yards and 19 touchdowns as a senior at WPHS, led the Green Wave to two state championships, while Virges and Williams were alongside for one. After playing cornerback as a junior in Starkville, the 6-foot-3, 190-pounder is making the switch to safety, where he compiled 11 interceptions in two seasons at Scooba.
"Guys like Justin Cox, they are so athletic that he can adapt to any position," said MSU safeties coach Tony Hughes. "He's doing well."
Cox and Virges each saw meaningful minutes in 2013, with Cox recording 31 tackles and an interception. For Virges, the upcoming season means one more ride through the rigorous Southeastern Conference.
"It flies by," said Virges, who posted 89 tackles and 11 sacks as a senior at WPHS in 2009. "I can't believe this is already my last year. I'm just going to enjoy it and work hard."
The hard work could pay off. Virges, listed at 6-foot-3, 315 pounds, is part of a Mississippi State defensive line that finished fourth in the SEC against the run a season ago, and much of that talent returns. With playing time at a premium due to the depth and returning talent up front, Virges finds himself competing for every snap.
"Curtis is practicing and playing like a guy who knows this is his last year," said MSU defensive line coach David Turner. "He's working hard doing what we need him to do."
Working hard is nothing new for Virges. A chemistry major, Virges earned his undergraduate degree in May and is balancing fall camp with post-graduate work this fall.
Wave of talent
While Cox and Virges are each seniors, Williams heads into the 2014 season as the future at running back for the Bulldogs. After rushing for 1,697 yards and 21 touchdowns as a senior, Williams arrives in Starkville with plenty of fanfare. And so far, he's backing it up.
"Those freshman, they are looking like they can be productive backs in this league," said MSU running backs coach Gren Knox of Williams and fellow freshman Dontavian Lee. "They run hard, they work hard. That's what we're looking for."
With three upperclassmen - junior Josh Robinson, senior Nick Griffin and sophomore Ashton Shumpert - returning at the tailback position, Williams' fight for playing time might look like an uphill battle. But at 6-foot1, 210 pounds, the West Point product has the size and speed to make an impact.
One observer who won't bet against Williams is Chambless.
"He's the complete package," said Chambless. "When you talk about character, integrity, work ethic and then you combine that with ability, he's one of the best we've ever had. He's going to be a good one at State."
Follow Dispatch sports writer Brandon Walker on Twitter @BWonStateBeat