Unclear if MSU’s Cox can return this week

By Brad Locke | Daily Journal

STARKVILLE – Chris Wilson sure hopes he has his biggest defensive weapon available for Saturday. It would sure make his job a lot easier.
But for now, Mississippi State head coach Dan Mullen won’t say for sure whether defensive tackle Fletcher Cox will return for this week’s game at No. 23 Auburn. The same goes for the other four players who were suspended for last week’s season opener at Memphis for violations of team policies.
An MSU defense minus Cox, a junior, is a defense minus its anchor. That was apparent against Memphis.
While the Bulldogs won 59-14, the defensive line didn’t put a ton of pressure on the quarterbacks, and Memphis had some success in the running game.
Devin Jones started in Cox’s place. Jones is a versatile and athletic player, but he’s no Cox. The dynamic changes drastically when he’s out.
“Schematically we didn’t change anything,” said Wilson, the defensive coordinator and defensive line coach. “But now you’ve got a 6-(foot)-4, 305-pound guy who’s played a lot of football. … But you know, you can’t replace that, you can’t change that entity out.
“That’s the biggest thing you miss, you miss his physical presence and the experience that he’s had.”
Cox, who plays the three-technique tackle alongside nose tackle Josh Boyd, made 6.5 tackles-for-loss and 2.5 sacks last season, and he’s a preseason All-SEC second-team pick.
Mullen has said he expects Cox and the others to be available Saturday, but he reiterated Monday that his decision will be announced on game day.
“I’m hoping like anything obviously that Fletcher’s back,” Wilson said, “but I don’t know that.”
Many missed tackles
The biggest defensive concern to come out of the Memphis game was tackling. Safety Charles Mitchell said MSU missed 29 tackles, well above the acceptable threshold.
Asked what is an acceptable number, Mitchell said, “Zero. We want it to be in single digits if there are missed tackles.”
With a lot of young faces on the field, that stat isn’t too surprising. But it must be remedied.
“Positioning on the ball was a big key factor of that,” Wilson said. “Obviously everything starts with a great alignment, once you’re in alignment and you’re in position to make those plays, and those are the things that we as coaches as well as players have got to do a better job of this week.”
Head coach Dan Mullen said he saw plenty of other things that need addressing in practices this week.
“We had way too many yards, didn’t cause enough three-and-outs, gave up a couple of long drives,” he said Monday. “They got in the red zone twice and scored twice, and those are things that the older guys are really going to jump on the younger guys that really aren’t acceptable to our defense.”
Extra incentive?
State can achieve a couple of notable goals this weekend: Its first 1-0 start in SEC play since 1999, its first 2-0 overall start since 2000, and Mullen’s first win against an SEC Western Division team besides Ole Miss.
Mullen said he doesn’t use such records to motivate himself:“Our incentive is we have to win games to win the SEC West. That’s our incentive.”
Bulldog bites
Mullen had no injury updates on Monday. … Senior DB Marvin Bure had five tackles on special teams at Memphis. … Right guard Tobias Smith recorded a team-leading six knockdowns and a 91-percent blocking grade.
brad.locke@journalinc.com