April 11, 2014 11:32:04 AM
STARKVILLE -- Mississippi State defensive coordinator Geoff Collins has gotten to the point he doesn't have to yell out the coverage, blitzes or scheme to safety Justin Cox.
All Collins has to do is remind Cox when he's allowed to play with reckless abandon.
"Justin, we're live now," Collins hollered at Cox on Thursday's scrimmage action to practice. "We're live. Go."
Cox feels most comfortable when he's told when it's time to go, and he has used this spring season to adapt to safety after being pulled between cornerback and safety last season.
"I've found a home at safety," Cox said Thursday after MSU's final practice its the spring game at noon Saturday at Davis Wade Stadium. "There's so many schemes, sets, and calls in this defense that you really have to put the time in the film room to learn your position. I had to learn how to play this game at another level -- and do it fast -- if I wanted to see the field."
Fans are eager to see Cox's development Saturday in the annual Maroon-White spring game. The senior, a former standout at West Point High School and East Mississippi Community College, likely will start at safety for one of the teams. He has seen first-team repetitions in the first 14 spring practices with Jay Hughes limited in his return from an Achilles injury in 2013.
"With Jay being out, he has really been helping me try to understand the ins and outs of playing safety in this defense," Cox said. "What I've tried to do is make sure when a defense is called, I know what I'm doing immediately. When I'm out there thinking about messing up, that's when I get caught."
Cox experienced a roller coaster ride last fall adjusting to the academic and athletic differences between junior college and a Bowl Championship Series program. Because he was a highly recruited player from a national championship program like EMCC, Cox didn't have an extended amount of time to handle the growing pains newcomers feel when they arrive at MSU.
"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," MSU coach Dan 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's introduction to national television was rocky. He fell down twice on the same play when Auburn completed a 76-yard touchdown pass from Nick Marshall to Quan Bray. At other times, Cox continued to develop and had an interception in the victory against Ole Miss in the Egg Bowl.
"(The speed of the game) was still a shock to me," Cox said. "(It) has to be considered one step below the National Football League here in the Southeastern Conference. When you come from junior college where everything is easy, to this and you're expected to have it down immediately, that can be overwhelming."
The Bulldogs signed Cox in 2011 hoping they'd found a student-athlete who could open a pipeline to West Point High, but the 6-foot-2 cornerback didn't qualify academically and spent two seasons at EMCC. Cox made the most of that time, intercepting 11 passes, breaking up 19 more, and helping the Lions win a national championship in 2011. That success helped Cox be heavily recruited for a second time, but he recommitted to MSU over the likes of Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Kentucky, Ole Miss, Nebraska, and Tennessee.
Cox, a former first-team All-State selection by the Mississippi Association of Coaches, played on offense and on defense and helped West Point win back-to-back state championships.
This spring, Cox has learned the safety position he will share with Hughes and Kendrick Market this season is a center field spot similar to what he was asked to do at EMCC, when his natural instincts came forward. On Thursday, Cox intercepted Dak Prescott in scrimmage work against the first-team offense. He read the field and didn't allow Prescott to determine the secondary's coverage. His ability to disguise the defense enabled him to showcase the "ball skills" Collins said Cox possesses.
"Justin has always been interested in doing everything we ask of him as fast as he can," Mullen said. "If I don't have to teach you effort, that's a great start. Our coaches can teach you positioning, schemes, and execution. We can't make you do it hard every play."
As evidenced Thursday, Cox doesn't need to be reminded when it's time to go anymore.
Follow Matt Stevens on Twitter @matthewcstevens.
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