Cox Finding His Focus In Cornerback Rotations

It isn't that Justin Cox ever took a play ‘off' in his previous years, exactly. Still he's discovered, and quickly, that senior college football is a very different game than anything he's ever experienced before. "The hardest adjustment is you're going hard every play."

True. Yet the fact Cox has picked up this absolute fact already bodes well for his continued development. Besides, when Cox plays his hardest on every hike of the ball, Mississippi State has another good Dog in the defensive secondary.

Two games into his Bulldog career Cox, the junior college transfer, has posted seven tackles. It might not sound like lots but the perspective is Mississippi State has been busy rotating cornerbacks most of the last five quarters. Only starter Taveze Calhoun, with nine, has more total stops after two weekends of action.

This signals a strong start for one of the newer cornerbacks on the roster. "I did pretty good, I think. It's different from juco football, and way faster and stronger. I'm getting adjusted to it so I think it's going to be pretty good." Or even better perhaps.

Because Cox, remember, is still learning his way around the cornerback position. A splendid all-around athlete, he spent the past two falls at East Mississippi C.C. as a safety, and what a safety he was. Cox picked off 11 passes with 19 breakups in a couple of seasons with 119 total tackles, either supporting the guys up front or just making stops on his own initiative. Small wonder he was courted by many a SEC program that wanted to sign him and then figure out where Cox would fit their schemes best.

Fortunately for Mississippi State, the West Point native stayed true to his initial 2011 signing and re-inked with the Bulldogs. He did so knowing plans were to put him on a corner and thus devote his talents to stopping a single opponent. It has been something of an education as one would expect.

"You know, safety is different from corner. You have to learn different stuff," Cox said. The good news is his instruction is coming from a fellow who knows a thing or two about coverage…college and professional. It can't be coincidence that new cornerbacks coach Deshea Townsend and Cox both reported to the Mississippi State campus in January, right?

They've hit it off well since, says the player. "We've got one of the best defensive corner staffs and he's teaching us all the right things to do. So it's pretty good."

Now one might think a first-year guy at the senior level would prefer a somewhat more limited list of duties on the field. Cox isn't so typical though. Not only did he enjoy the all-around responsibility of safety in juco, back in high school he made his name as quarterback of the state championship squad. Here's a guy who expects to be involved in everything, everywhere.

Or at least he did up to now. College cornerback requires some serious specialization. "Yeah, it's pretty hard for me," admitted Cox. "We just play the technique right, and you can't roam around and see everything. It's OK." Anyway, that opening-day experience against Oklahoma State showed all Cox needed to know about how demanding one-on-one coverage can be. And now, this weekend, he'll be getting into even greater matchup challenges.

"It's the SEC, the receivers are the best of the best. So they're pretty good." Meaning for the moment Cox can content himself with focusing on the first task, of attending to his man. Beyond that, and once the ball is definitely going elsewhere, then Cox can revert to the skills that would make him a top-rank SEC safety. The opportunities should be there, he understands.

"You never know when you're going to make a play," he said. This could be all the more true Saturday against an Auburn offense that takes the ball all around the field, throwing and running or running and then throwing or whatever. Cox saw first-hand what can happen when a Dog defense doesn't cover every (literal) option on the ground, as Oklahoma State turned three quarterback keepers in one series into a game-changing touchdown drive. The Tigers have watched that tape, too.

Obviously safeties and linebackers are the first lines of defensing option stuff…but as Cox said one never knows when it is the corner who has to shed his now-blocking receiver and go fill the farthest gap. Here is where his experiences reading action on-the-edge, both with the ball and going after the ball in fact, could come in quite handy. Because it is a fine, fine line for a defensive back in support, said Cox.

"It's kind of a hesitation thing, you can't just go spike it because he might throw it." State did eventually adapt to the Cowboy keepers, and while Alcorn State wasn't much on running their quarterbacks the Dog defense had the edges supported better. Still Cox said the real test is still ahead.

"I think it's going to take a SEC game. I mean, I know Auburn is stronger and that's what it is going to take."

Winning will take more than making stops, too. Forcing turnovers is a near-obsession for coordinator Geoff Collins this season, and he was frustrated in the opener with no takeaways. Week-two produced three, all forced including a pair of after-catch strips…by cornerbacks Calhoun and Tolando Cleveland at that. Calhoun was caught on cameras tossing his retrieved trophy to Collins on the sideline. It was per-instruction, Cox reported.

"Coach Collins talks about it every day, getting the ball. He says every time you get the ball come bring it to him so that's what we do!"

Cox hasn't cracked the starting lineup so far; Calhoun has opened both games while Cedric Jiles took over last week for a gimpy game-one starter Jamerson Love, who is due back this game. However this is a different secondary in '13. After years of riding the same starters, rightly so since both are now playing professionally, State is rotating cornerbacks regularly. Cox, Cleveland, Kivon Coman, all get their turns early and often in both straight two-corner sets as well as nickel and dime packages, and in October Will Redmond will join the party.

"Coach says we've got the talent, so he's going to play them," said Cox. Against an Auburn offense that wants to snap the ball often as possible keeping fresh legs on the corners will mean even more if the Bulldogs are to secure what is increasingly seen as must-win conference opener.

"It's going to be pretty fun," Cox said. "We need to go out and win. It's a SEC game so we need to win. We need to go out and ball hard and do our thing."

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