March 30, 2013 11:27:24 PM
Matthew Stevens - [email protected]
STARKVILLE -- In the eyes of the Mississippi State University football coaching staff, Justin Cox is the kind of player that can benefit from spring practice the most.
As a junior college transfer from East Mississippi Community College in Scooba, Cox is trying to get everything down so he can be a starter for in the Southeastern Conference. The Bulldogs also have little time to develop Cox, who only two years of college eligibility left.
When you consider Cox also has to take over for Johnthan Banks, the Jim Thorpe Award winner this past season, it's easy to see how things are coming at Cox pretty fast.
"I'm going to have to learn a lot before I get any time on that field," Cox said. "It's just a big transition from JUCO to the SEC. I have to admit that to myself first before I get better."
In the mind of MSU coach Dan Mullen, learning and teaching is what spring football is about. The goal is to get the former four-star recruit from West Point High School up to speed as quickly as possible in an inexperienced secondary.
"When you go out and recruit junior colleges, for the most part we don't do it for depth, we bring guys in to play," Mullen said. "If you look at the numbers, if you ever want to go do a research project on our junior college player signees, the amount they play is probably the highest in the country. I expect them on the field for us immediately the next fall."
Cox showed his growing pains in MSU's fist four spring practices. On one play, he read quarterback Tyler Russell's eyes and made an interception in 11-on-11 skeleton drills. On the next possession, Cox got beat on a long touchdown pass to wide receiver Robert Johnson because he passed the sophomore receiver on to a safety who wasn't behind him.
"When you see a big play out there, it not only means somebody did something great but that something really bad happened on the opposite side," Mullen said. "I look at Justin and see him in the flat watching Robert Johnson go down the sidelines and before he says anything, I know he didn't understand his responsibility. That's OK right now. We're not preparing for an opponent. We're supposed to be preparing him."
Mullen and the MSU staff have been waiting to teach Cox after they signed him in 2011, but the 6-foot-2 cornerback didn't qualify through the NCAA Eligibility Center and spent two seasons at EMCC. Cox made an impact in that time, intercepting 11 passes, breaking up 19 more, and helping the Lions win a national championship in 2011. That success helped Cox, who was a little-known talent with the Green Wave, to a hot commodity, but he re-committed to MSU over the likes of the University of Alabama, the University of Arkansas, the University of Georgia, the University of Kentucky, the University of Mississippi, the University of Nebraska, and the University of Tennessee.
"I wanted to be part of this program that trusted me all along," Cox said. "It wasn't a decision for me anymore. I made my mind up long ago where I wanted to be."
In addition to learning a big defensive playbook, Cox is adjusting to a new defensive coaching staff, which includes former NFL player and coach Deshea Townsend. The former Pittsburgh Steeler took over as cornerbacks coach after Melvin Smith took the same position at Auburn University.
"The big thing about coach Townsend is he played and coached in the NFL," Cox said. "That's where I want to be, so you're going to listen to him right away because of that instant credibility."
The first week of practice has been as much about Townsend learning what the players can do than it has been about the players adjusting to his coaching style.
"The first thing I know about Justin Cox is he has a passion to play football at the highest level and that he, like a lot of my guys, can run," said Townsend, who is five years removed from playing in the NFL. "We have speed, and I mean legit 4.3-second (in the 40-yard dash) speed you can't teach."
Cox, a former first-team All-State selection by the Mississippi Association of Coaches, played on offense and on defense and played an integral role in helping West Point win back-to-back state championships. Cox's athletic attributes, which Mullen refers to as "ball skills", are the things he saw more than four years ago from Banks, who was a standout at East Webster High.
"What I like about Justin is I can tell he doesn't know much of what he's supposed to be doing in terms of our scheme, so early on he's decided to focus on effort and doing everything fast," Mullen said. "If I don't have to teach you effort, then that's a great start. Our coaches can teach you positioning, schemes and execution. We can't make you do it hard every play."
Cox enrolled early at MSU to take advantage of football trainer Matt Balis' winter conditioning program. He immediately noticed the level of intensity was different.
"The amount of running is something I've just never done before, and it's taken a while to get used to it," Cox said. "All the coaches keep telling me I can do it. I always wanted to play here, so I'll keep improving."