MSU's twin towers of defense hard to separate

By Brad Locke/NEMS Daily Journal

STARKVILLE – Josh Boyd and Fletcher Cox have been a pair for a while now.
They got to know each other in 11th grade and figured they’d end up at the same college.
And once Boyd and Cox signed with Mississippi State two years ago, they became roommates, first in a dorm and now an apartment.
On the field, the sophomores are hard to separate. They played significant roles last season and are full-time starters this year, anchoring the interior of MSU’s defensive line.
“They’re easy to group together, Cox and Boyd,” defensive coordinator Manny Diaz said. “It’s hard to talk about one without talking about the other.”
Boyd (6-foot-3, 295 pounds) and Cox (6-4, 300) have combined for 50 tackles, 14 tackles-for-loss and five sacks this season. They’re a big part of a run defense that ranks third in the SEC and 20th in the nation, and it’s that front line that will be key in containing fleet Michigan quarterback Denard Robinson when the teams meet in the Gator Bowl on Jan. 1.
While they are stalwarts in the middle, Boyd and Cox aren’t exactly interchangeable. Boyd plays the nose guard spot, while Cox lines up in the other tackle position called a “three technique.”
There are other differences between them.
Boyd said he’s a much better cook, and that Cox isn’t as “hard” as he tries to act.
“He’s probably nicer than most people think he is,” Boyd said.
Cox has slightly better stats, but according to Diaz, Boyd is a little further ahead in his development, partly due to an ankle injury that limited Cox earlier in the season and caused him to miss a game.
Driven to improve
Both have taken big steps forward this season. When Diaz took over the defense in January, he saw two players that had played well – for freshmen.
Boyd and Cox played in all 12 games in 2009 and made a combined seven starts. They combined for 46 tackles, but Boyd had no sacks or tackles-for-loss, while Cox had one sack and 3.5 TFLs.
“A lot of times when you get thrown in a situation, you have to play, you kind of hit cruise control; you’re not working to improve,” head coach Dan Mullen said. “They’ve had the drive to improve themselves, even though they’ve known they’ve been in a starting position since they’ve shown up on campus.”
They naturally feed off each other, and that really goes back to high school, when Boyd was at Philadelphia and Cox was at Yazoo City. The friendship started their junior year and grew as they attended the same summer camps and went through the recruiting process.
“We always kind of figured maybe we’d go to the same school and probably be on the field at the same time,” Boyd said.
Being on the field together is one reason they’ve developed so quickly.
“We’re kind of competing against each other,” Cox said.
It’s been a beneficial pairing for them, as well as for MSU. With defensive end Pernell McPhee exhausting his eligibility, the Bulldogs will need to rely even more heavily on the duo next season.
“Next year they absolutely have to be our best players,” Diaz said. “Because now our experience is on the inside and not on the edge. Again, without a McPhee, they can’t even be good now – they have to be great for us to be a good defense in 2011.”
Contact Brad Locke at 678-1571 or brad.locke@djournal.com.