Entering spring practice, Mississippi State defensive coordinator/defensive line coach Chris Wilson was seeking a pair of things from his position group. And both of them dealt with the loss of the now-departed defensive end Pernell McPhee.
Wilson saw progress on one of those fronts and exited the spring still searching for the other.
"Early on in spring our biggest concern was finding a replacement or replacements for McPhee," said Wilson. "I don't think you can do that with just one guy, though. He was a very instrumental leader for our defense. But a guy that did help fill in that leadership lost was (junior defensive tackle) Fletcher Cox and he finished the spring on a high level.
"But it is still a work in progress in finding those replacements. What we have to do is become better pass rushers. We still don't have that one dominant end that demands a double team."
A year ago Cox had 29 tackles with 6.5 tackles for loss and ranked third on the team with 2.5 sacks. Entering his third year in the program, Wilson said Cox made "tremendous" strides this spring towards being a dominant SEC player.
"Cox had a tremendous spring and I've been around him awhile now," said Wilson. "Rating from 1 to 5 on improvement, I would say he was a 5. I see him as a dominating SEC guy with the way he finished sprong."
Of course, Cox has help up front in another experienced junior defensive tackle with Josh Boyd, who had 24 tackles with 7.5 tackles for loss and 2.5 sacks in 2010.
"Josh had a solid spring," noted Wilson. "I really look forward to seeing what he does this offseason. He is a solid player in the SEC. But what we want to see is him being a dominating guy on a consistent basis, and I believe he will reach that."
Behind Cox and Boyd is another experienced Bulldog in senior Jeff Howie. In his first year at MSU, the juco transfer played a contributing role last year and had 10 tackles, four of which were for losses. Helping Howie on the two-deep tackle chart this spring was redshirt freshman Kaleb Eulls.
Getting his first real opportunity this spring, Eulls showed steady improvements.
"Jeff Howie is just a blue-collar guy and he comes to work every day," said Wilson. "He is a great run-stop guy. He just needs to go into his senior season in the best shape of his life and be dominant at that noseguard position.
"With every rep that Eulls took, he got better with each one of them. He takes coaching so well and strives to get things done once he's told for the first time. I really see him developing into a Cox or Boyd-type player. He just needs a ton of reps."
Rounding out the five-man tackle rotation this spring was another redshirt freshman Curtis Virges. The former West Point (Miss.) standout was limited somewhat this spring due to offseason labrum surgery as well as experiencing natural growing pains up front.
"Virges is a typical freshman," said Wilson. "What I mean is that they believe they are going hard and in the past, that was enough. But the biggest thing he got was getting out there and playing this spring. We saw flashes with Curtis of him being a solid player. The biggest thing is for him to learn the defense better this summer and then he will get more reps. He gives us a guy that is big and strong and we can work with that."
The wild card on the defensive line could be junior Devin Jones. He opened the spring at defensive end but as spring grew longer, Jones began to get more reps at defensive tackle. Last year Jones had 14 tackles, including three tackles for loss and one sack, playing primarily at defensive tackle.
"We call Devin our pinch-hitter," said Wilson. "He will play at both spots depending on what the situation calls for. He is the flavor of the day and gives us a lot of diversity at end and the three-technique tackle. He brings a lot of different variables to the table and is a great technician of the game."
While the Bulldogs exhibited experience and decent depth at tackle, the same can't be said for the guys on the edge. Which is why the Bulldogs are hoping for a productive season from its' lone senior defensive end, Sean Ferguson. In 2010 Ferguson started nine games and had 23 tackles with five tackles for loss.
"I thought Sean was leaps and bounds this spring from where he was a year ago," said Wilson. "And he should be going into his senior year and only guaranteed 12 more games. I think Sean took that to heart and improved and also took to heart to being a better leader. He was out there teaching younger guys and that was a positive sign.
"The thing to develop with Sean is just consistency. He is a guy that everybody looks to cause of his three years of experience in the SEC. He wants to become a dominant pass rusher and he can help us quite a bit."
Also getting some first-team reps this spring were a pair of redshirt juniors - Shane McCardell and Trevor Stigers. McCardell was effective on third-down rush plays while Wilson noted of the late improvement with Stigers.
"I will say I was pleasantly surprised to see Trevor's improvement over the last six practices," said Wilson. "He started to look like the guy he was in high school. We had a good conversation of where he is now compared to last year. What I noticed was him being a really good pass rusher and also played the run well. So he is another one I am excited to see his offseason progress.
"And Shane has done a good job working with Coach (Matt) Balis. Now he is learning how to carry more weight and the summer is big for him, too. I am excited to see him carry that weight and still keep his speed. He is a guy that helped us win games last year at Florida and against Michigan."
Rounding out the end depth this spring was sophomore Corvell Harrison-Gay and true freshman Johnathan Harris who graduated high school early. Harrison-Gay saw limited snaps last year as a true freshman.
"Corvell is going in the right direction now and just needs a million more reps," said Wilson. "When you come from small high schools, you just need time to develop and just going and playing ball helps with that. That is why bowl practice last year was so valuable for him.
"And I really thought John had a good spring. Now we get to see him develop more this summer and he's a guy that just went to his high school prom last week. You never want to depend on a true freshman and we want to see where he's at after this summer."