Before Jabril Cox ever took a snap in a North Dakota State football game, he had expectations surrounding him that not many redshirt freshmen have to deal with. A highly-recruited linebacker out of Kansas City, he impressed coaches last season on the scout team as a redshirt. Word trickled down to the Fargo media from NDSU coaches that Cox shouldn't be in an FCS uniform. He was an FBS Power 5 talent that somehow got to Fargo.
The hype reached the passionate Bison fan base and the word was out during fall camp this season: Jabril Cox was the next big thing at NDSU.
Of course, it's one thing to do it in practice. It's another thing for a 19-year-old to go out and live up to those expectations. But Cox isn't like most 19-year-olds. And as he's shown, he's not like most FCS linebackers.
At 6-foot-3, 227 pounds with room for more weight, Cox showed his athleticism and speed on special teams and in garbage time during early blowouts in the NDSU season. He showed how bright his future is when he was given his time to shine due to injury. In his first game with meaningful reps, Cox had seven solo tackles, three tackles for loss and two sacks in a 27-24 overtime win at Youngstown State.
He's been a starter ever since, minus the South Dakota State game where he had to sit out the first half due to a targeting call in the previous game.
Cox said he knew his time was coming and that he had to make an impact for the Bison this season. He had heard the hype, but went back to lessons learned from his parents, James and Lotu.
"My parents raised me right," Cox told HERO Sports. "Ever since I was young they taught me to always be humble. It doesn't matter if it's criticism or the praises you get, just always stay humble. At a young age that helped me a lot. And coming to college, I heard that hype and I just stuck to what I know."
It's certainly been working. Cox leads the Bison with 39 solo tackles and 10 tackles for loss. He has 59 total tackles, which is third on the team, four sacks and one interception in which he returned for 32 yards in the snow against Illinois State. He was named to the Missouri Valley Football Conference Second Team along with Newcomer of the Year and Freshman of the Year.
Cox has become an elite talent for the NDSU defense ranked No. 1 in the FCS in total defense. His size, length and sideline-to-sideline abilities has created havoc for offenses. Against Wofford, a triple option offense, the Bison put Cox on the wide side of the field. He was virtually unblockable and blew up plays on the outside. Cox credits his days as a quarterback at Raytown South High School for his ability to play fast.
"Playing quarterback in high school helped out a lot," he said. "You think about all the different positions. As a quarterback, you're reading the defense as a whole. Playing on the opposite side of the ball, you can kind of get into the quarterback's head and see what they're thinking and try to disguise things."
Speaking of high school, Cox accounted for 3,107 yards of total offense and 31 touchdowns his senior year. But an ACL tear the year before had most FBS schools back off on their interest. Cox did receive scholarship offers from every MVFC team except for SDSU, though. In the end, he decided the opportunity to showcase his skill for a top FCS program was too great to pass up and committed to NDSU.
"I think everything happens for a reason," Cox said on how his ACL injury may have impacted his college destination. "It was unfortunate, but it was also great that I came here and am doing what I'm doing."
It sure has worked out quite well for both sides. The Bison are one win away from returning to the national championship game. They face a spread team in Sam Houston State, the kind of matchup where Cox's ability in the open field will have huge value. It's also the type of game where fans get to see exactly why a redshirt freshman was being hyped as a Big 12 talent during fall practice.
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