October 22, 2013 9:50:07 AM
STARKVILLE -- Defensive back Justin Cox has learned the difference between being disciplined and reckless isn't clear in his first six games with the Mississippi State football team.
The 6-foot-2 cornerback, who was a former standout at West Point High School, had to learn a new position after floating from cornerback to safety in two seasons at East Mississippi Community College. Cox made 11 interceptions and had 19 pass breakups and won a national championship in his two seasons at EMCC and went from an unknown high school talent to a player who re-committed to MSU over the likes of the Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Kentucky, Mississippi, Nebraska, and Tennessee.
Cox has learned in his first six games that MSU defensive coordinator Geoff Collins' disciplined defensive scheme doesn't allow for players to ad-lib based on athletic ability.
"There's a very fine line between being a playmaker and doing your job," MSU coach Dan Mullen said. "The most important thing is do your job then be a playmaker within the description of your job. That's tough for some guys."
Cox, who has started two games, has 13 tackles. He might be called on to play a bigger role with the uncertainty surrounding the injury of cornerback Jamerson Love, of Aberdeen.
"Justin is such a dynamic athlete, and coach (Deshea) Townsend is doing a great job with him getting him ready," Collins said. "We expect him to keep getting better and better every week."
Game experience is the best way to do that, and Cox has had plenty of chances. Against Auburn, Cox had to learn the difference between taking risks and putting himself in a situation to fail. The first touchdown of more than 20 yards MSU allowed this season came when Cox positioned himself to make a play on a pass. However, the junior fell down twice (once on the pass and a second time during the run after the catch) on a long touchdown strike in the first half of a 24-20 loss.
"Some guys never get it figured out, but he's started to understand this idea of playing within the system," Mullen said. "A lot of junior college players get to freelance out on the field a lot and then they have to learn the system."
Mullen said Monday there's not a timetable for Cox and junior college prospects to develop that understanding. MSU needs Cox to grasp the lessons because depth in the secondary continues to be a problem for a defense that is allowing 220 passing yards per game.
Mullen said Monday that Darius Slay, one of his standout junior college talents from last year who is now in the NFL, didn't figure out the nuances of the game until his time in Starkville was over.
"He ended up a second-round pick and (is) putting together the beginning of a nice professional career," Mullen said. "Everybody is different in when it all clicks, but all we can ask for is they continue to put the work in."
Follow Matt Stevens on Twitter @matthewcstevens.