Any discussion about how good or bad Mississippi State football will be in 2011 seems to center around two things: replacing two starting linebackers and replacing the left tackle.
Those are significant issues, certainly, but the loss of Pernell McPhee, a gigantic defensive end and the vocal leader of MSU's defense in 2010, seems to go unnoticed.
Perhaps it is because McPhee did not have astounding numbers last season. But, despite never being fully healthy, he drew double-teams from nearly every offensive line he faced. The Baltimore Ravens didn't draft just because he looks scary. He is scary, on the field that is.
Now, MSU is faced with some questions. In addition to the graduation of McPhee, the Bulldogs dealt with the tragic and too-early death of defensive end Nick Bell in the middle of the season. Freshman defensive end Johnathan McKenzie chose to quit football and focus on his engineering degree early on in 2010.
Training camp has begun, kickoff is three weeks away and MSU is trying to figure out what to do. Head coach Dan Mullen said he hasn't seen any stars at defensive end yet, but he's not too concerned.
"They're coming," Mullen said. "Nobody has really stood out, but that's fine. We don't have to have a standout guy. We have to have some depth, though. Shane McCardell, Trevor Stigers, Corvell Harrison-Gay and all those guys have to step up next to Sean Ferguson, who has played a bunch. I feel good about Sean. It's finding those other guys that will step on the field and play."
Ferguson is a senior, the most experienced of the bunch and the de-facto leader of the group, even if he doesn't want to be. He said he doesn't mind it, of course.
The numbers aren't in MSU's favor. Defensive coordinator Chris Wilson says goodbye to the three players with the most tackles for loss in 2010 - linebacker Chris White (15.5), McPhee (10) and linebacker K.J. Wright (8). The next two were both defensive tackles, juniors Fletcher Cox (6.5) and Josh Boyd (7.5). Only after those first five do you get to a defensive end who is still on the team, and that's Ferguson with five tackles for loss.
MSU recorded 26 sacks in 2010, but Ferguson got none. Again, White (6) and Wright (3) led the way. Cox and Boyd both had 2.5 and McPhee was credited with two. McCardell also had two.
Judging by these numbers, the linebackers may be just as important to the pass rush as the defensive ends. But Wilson is concerned with the ends, for now, knowing he has depth at linebacker, if not a ton of experience.
And Ferguson? He isn't worried about "replacing" anybody. He's just planning to keep working as hard as he can, which he thinks the others will do, as well.
"I'm gonna be known as Sean Ferguson. The other end is gonna be known as Trevor and Shane is gonna be known as Shane."
At 6-foot-4, 285-pounds, McPhee wasn't the typical build for a defensive end. In fact, he was bigger than many tackles in the SEC.
In his wake, MSU's ends plan to be more speed-oriented in 2011, lacking anyone with the size of McPhee.
"I work on my speed," the sopping wet, 6-foot-3, 250-pound Ferguson said after practice on 'The Farm' Wednesday. "I work on my quickness and I try to help the other guys do the same thing. We're not as strong as Pernell McPhee. We probably will never be as strong and big as he is, so we'll use what we got."
Wilson, a former defensive lineman himself, said the speedy and athletic ends fit his preferred style, anyway.
"We want guys who can do two things: they can move and run," Wilson said. "That's kind of how we base our defensive end position. They've gotta be athletic. They've gotta be able to change directions and they've got to be able to play in space. So when we look for guys, that's exactly what we're trying to get to."
Said Mullen, "You look at what you have and you have to tweak some things around their strengths. We'll find a way to do that."
Ferguson is the only senior on the entire defensive line, and Stigers and McCardell are the next oldest ends, both juniors. The Bulldogs have plenty of numbers with freshmen, redshirt freshmen and sophomores, as well as a number of players, like 6-foot, 260-pound sophomore junior, Devin Jones, who can play either tackle or end.
For Wilson, it won't be about wondering if he has anyone who can play, it's just finding which of the youngsters to plug in.
Of course, the pass rush comes from much more than the ends. Cox and Boyd drawing double-teams in the middle of the line certainly help.
"They affect us a lot," Stigers said. "It's just good to have those guys inside working hard. They're great players. They pick up a lot of slack that we have."
Wilson said last week that a good secondary, which he believes he has, is just as important. And the numbers from 2010 certainly seem to indicate that the linebackers play a big role in getting into the opposing team's backfield, too.
Yet again, that's just how Wilson wants it. However it happens, he wants the best 11 players on the field.
"With us, we're so multiple," Wilson said. "We can line up in a four-down [linemen], a three-down. We can line up in a two-down. As you guys have seen, we're all over the place. We're a call defense. We can be in any front with a desire with a call. By doing that, it allows us to keep the best players on the field, regardless of position. What we want on the field at all times are, A: guys who play with great effort, B: they're physical, and three: smart. Those are three things we have to have for us to compete in the SEC."
Wilson thinks he has those guys. Now, he just has to figure out who they are. He's got three weeks until the Sept. 1 kickoff in Memphis.