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By DANNY P. SMITH
The Southeastern Conference has developed a reputation of being especially strong in football because of the play along the defensive front among the 12 member institutions.
Arkansas head coach Bobby Petrino has come to the belief in his career as an assistant and head coach that the thing that separates the SEC from other conferences in America is the defensive front.
"It's the speed, athleticism on the edges and athleticism inside," Petrino said Wednesday during SEC Media Days. "When I came back as a head coach, I found out that was true."
Petrino and Mississippi State head coach Dan Mullen are offensive-minded people.
Even though Mullen tends to think about offense first, he knows a good defensive lineman when he sees one.
Mullen is thankful to have one of the rising defensive tackles in the league in junior Fletcher Cox.
"Fletcher is a very talented player and a great young man," Mullen said. "What he has done is buy into our program, worked as hard as he can and is kind of what we expect in player development. He's a guy who comes in with a lot of potential, then capitalizes on it and becomes a star."
The Yazoo City native has certainly been consistent in his first two years with the Bulldogs. He had 29 tackles in both his freshman and sophomores seasons.
The sack totals for Cox rose from one in 2009 to 2.5 last season with one forced fumble and recovery.
Cox played in all 12 games of his freshman season with four starts and started 11 of the 12 games he played last season.
Despite progressing in the system the last two years, Cox has committed and tried to impress upon the other defensive linemen that the focus must be on getting better each day.
"I'm always telling the guys that don't work the same as you did last year because it's a new year," Cox said. "I tell them to work harder than you did last year, then you'll know you will be better."
Cox said the defensive linemen went out three times a week this summer late in the day working on pass rush and on other areas expected of them by defensive coordinator Chris Wilson.
"He knows what to expect and knows we've been working on it," Cox said.
With the graduation of two-time All-SEC selection Pernell McPhee, Cox is expected to assume much of the leadership role on the front.
"With Pernell leaving, it allows (Cox) to step into that role and potentially do it even better," Mullen said. "That's the positive."
MSU senior running back Vick Ballard is glad all he has to do is go up against the 6-4, 295-pound Cox in practice and not in games. He can't imagine many defensive linemen in the SEC being better than Cox.
"We've had many run-ins during practice," Ballard said. "Sometimes I can block him and sometimes I can't. I see him every day and I know he's going to bring it every day.
"Fletcher is a man up front. He's probably right at 300 pounds and probably runs a 4.6 or 4.7. That's pretty big and he's a presence up front."
With those kind of statements coming from those inside and outside of the program, the question of - would Cox leave the Bulldogs early for entry into the National Football League? -comes up.
He put some of that to rest for now at SEC Media Days.
"I want to graduate and play all four years at Mississippi State," Cox said.
The last and only other player to leave MSU early was wide receiver Olanda Truitt in 1990.
Cox and fellow defensive lineman Josh Boyd are close on and off the field and challenge each other every day.
"Josh and I talk about it all of the time being on the same team," Cox said. "We're always competing against each other and we aren't ever satisfied. We want to set our standard and meet our standard.
"You don't want to just do the same things you did last year this year. You want to do them a whole lot better."
Even before becoming the coordinator, Wilson coached the MSU defensive line the last two seasons so he and Cox have come to an understanding.
Cox said Wilson looks to him, Boyd and Sean Ferguson for answers when things go wrong along the line.
"If something happens, Coach Wilson will look at me as if to say 'why did that happen? You are supposed to be the leader.' I will tell him that it won't happen again.
"He always wants us to understand what's going on, what situation you are in and what to do when things like that happen. You just have to correct it so it doesn't happen again."