Even if he's getting used to the awards, and the questions, "It means a lot," Cox said. "It lets you know hard work pays off." And he has been working hard…make that, harder this junior season. Already a solid enough player to earn pre-season all-conference honors, Cox is suddenly playing at All-SEC standards. Why so?
"Number one, me practicing a whole lot better than I was early on. Just coming out in practice, just leaving it all on the field. Not to say I wasn't leaving it all on the field before, but just practicing at a high level. And if I go back and look at film, the play that I made in practice, it'll be probably the exact plays I made during the game."
Such as his two sacks Saturday night at Kentucky, and of different quarterbacks at that. On one Wildcat pass play Cox came through and put starter Morgan Newton not just on the ground but out of the game with a sprained ankle. Next snap it was sub Maxwell Smith going down hard. Interestingly, Cox had to be reminded afterwards his sacks had come consecutively.
"It was pretty exciting to know that I got back-to-back sacks," he said. "I thought it was from another series until Coach said it, I read about it, it was back-to-back. I didn't realize it."
"That's how it should be," said position coach and coordinator Chris Wilson. "I mean that's really how it should be. You shouldn't be watching the clock and counting your stats. And we're not that kind of group anyway so that's kind of like him. It was neat to hear him say that."
And even neater to watch Cox in action, controlling interior line play at Kentucky in a way no Dog has done all season anywhere. Maybe this level of results would be expected against a UAB, but now Cox has set a tone in conference competition too. Not really surprising since all of Cox's sacks last season came in SEC games, a trend now resumed this year. And after totaling 16 tackles his first four games of '11 (he was sidelined in the opener at Memphis), Cox has 23 stops just the last three times out.
Wilson isn't taking any credit for transforming Cox from a good defensive tackle to a dominating Dog.
"We have played with his fundamentals a little bit and got him into some stances that he's more comfortable with," the coach said. "And I think that's helped him a little bit. But other than that, no. I mean there is no magic dust that I've sprinkled over him in the last few weeks that's changed him!"
"It's just me preparing, going out and having a great week of practice," said Cox. "And Saturday just going out and playing the game."
Playing the way Coach Dan Mullen forecast three years ago, at that.
"Even when we recruited him as a freshman we knew he was going to continue to blossom and grow into that player. And he's starting to do that. Before he leaves here I expect him to be, if he continues to improve on the level he's improving, next year to be on every watch list as a pre-season all-American. All of these things that he fulfilled his potential during his career at Mississippi State."
The head coach's comment implies of course there will be a senior season. As Cox rounds into all-star form this second half of the junior campaign there will be natural speculation about taking a look into early professional entry. Wilson doesn't sound too concerned yet.
"I don't think about the NFL talk," Wilson said. "I just focus on getting prepared for the week. If at some point he'll come to someone he feels great about, that may be me, it may be Coach Mullen, we'll sit down and discuss it after the season."
And what a season it could still be if Cox continues this hot streak. He does seem to be keeping the keel even though, never mind three weeks of SEC honors. "Yeah, I can be better at a lot of things technique-wise, pad level-wise. I'll work on that as the season progresses. Not saying that we have a ton of games left, but I still go out and work on that every day.
"Coach Mullen, Coach Wilson always talking about they know I can play better, and I know I can play better. I've got to set a standard for myself first."
The best part of Cox setting standards is he won't be the only Bulldog trying to meet them. His coaches point to a definite ripple-effect through the whole defensive front, whether it be classmate and fellow DT Josh Boyd or ends Sean Ferguson and Kaleb Eulls raising their own games. Naturally their play allows Cox to perform better, which in-turn opens things up for everyone, which…
"He's definitely motivating them," Wilson said. "When you watch guys like Josh and Sean, they're seeing the benefits of his hard work, his preparation, how hard he practices. And the carry-over into the games is getting those other guys excited about playing, too. He's a talented player but now he's putting that together with a great work ethic and great preparation. And I think that's like anything in life, it's your only shot at having a chance to win. And it's really carrying over to the other guys."
Cox has even improved his study habits this season, with voluntary film room time not required by coaches. For that matter the defensive linemen join linebackers like Brandon Wilson and Cameron Lawrence in these extra study-and-scout sessions. In fact just before meeting media, Cox and Boyd had been in Wilson's office going over more video. No, it is no coincidence this began about the time the Bulldog defense began showing on-field improvement, too.
"Everybody's confident. The whole team is confident, the coaches are confident," Cox said. "But we can go back and still have a lot of things that can be fixed, fundamental-wise, technique-wise. We're working that during this week." Yes, this week for Tennessee-Martin just as if it were, well, Tennessee or another SEC squad coming to Scott Field on Saturday.
REMEMBERING NICK: Wednesday is an anniversary of sorts for Bulldog football. It was a year ago defensive end Nick Bell passed away after a short and intense battle with cancer. The Student Association commemorates Bell's life and his time at Mississippi State on Tuesday with an evening ‘Nick Bell 3.6 Mile Run' beginning and ending at Davis Wade Stadium. The route will be marked by cowbell ringers at turns, and the distance of course signifies Bell's jersey number 36.
This event also assists in raising support for the Nick Bell Mentoring Memorial Foundation. "It's a big deal," said Mullen today. Also, "His mom (Linda Bell) is going to come spend some time with us, see the team this week. She did when we were over in Birmingham. It's never that far from a lot of our kids' minds, especially our older players that were very close to him."
Otherwise State will continue the season-long commemorations of wearing a jersey patch and placing markers on Scott Field. "I think we do enough in the right context," said Mullen. "It will be tough this week but a lot of younger guys on this team didn't know him that well. It's tough for them to deal with but more our older guys. A lot of them have come to grips, more so with his mom being involved with the program still there is some comfort there. It's more about celebrating his life than being depressed about it."
Cox is one of those Dogs who played with Bell in 2009 and four games last season. So there are other things than football on his mind this week.
"It's memories. We know he's in a better place, watching over us as we go out, and still doing what he loves to do. It motivates me a lot, just to sit down and think about it. We're just doing it, just going out and playing ball, something he loved to do."
MSU-ELLANEOUS NOTES: The Bulldogs, and their fans, have to wait another week to learn game time for the November 12 date with Alabama. CBS is exercising the six-day delay option before setting the TV schedule for that weekend, awaiting outcome of this weekend's key games between LSU-Alabama and South Carolina-Arkansas…With open date done State is back on a routine game-week schedule, with a Sunday practice and then workouts Tuesday-to-Friday. Having Monday off in this case is convenient for Halloween because the Mullen family will be trick-or-treating. It's almost an order by Mullen in fact that his staff take advantage of a holiday. Though perhaps not in the same way their boss will. Last year, Mullen reports, he, wife Megan and son Canon dressed as characters from the ‘Wonder Pets' show. Dan as Linny the Guinea Pig, Megan as Ming-Ming the Duckling, and so on. "It's a family theme," he said. "We're going Disney this year." Meaning there will be some big mouse characters making the rounds tonight.