By: Brentley Weissman
Happy Saturday ladies and gentlemen. On this glorious day, the conference known as the South Eastern Conference finally returned to action, thus providing some much-needed juice to our Saturdays. No disrespect to the ACC and the Big 12, who have already started their regular season play, but the fact remains that the SEC is the best conference in college football and offers the most NFL talent year after year. In fact, the 2020 NFL Draft marked the 14th consecutive season that the SEC had the most players drafted out of all conferences—a pretty unreal stat if I do say so myself.
As the conference enjoyed their season opener today, there were multiple storylines that I was very excited to see play out. How will the LSU Tigers offense look without quarterback Joe Burrow, wide receiver Ja’Marr Chase, running back Clyde Edwards-Helaire, and offensive coordinator Joe Brady? How will the transition be for Mike Leach, who took his Air Raid Offense to Mississippi State? Will Lane Kiffin have Ole Miss competitive in year one? Is Mac Jones underrated or is freshman phenom Bryce Young going to take his job in short order? Could this finally be the Florida Gators' year to win the conference?
There are even more storylines that I could list, but an underrated storyline that I had my eye on heading into the season opener is how North Dakota State transfer linebacker Jabril Cox would look as he made the jump from FCS to the SEC with the LSU Tigers.
The name Jabril Cox may be unfamiliar to most CFB fans, but that is sure to change as the 2020 season progresses. Let’s first take a look at Cox’s track record with North Dakota State. In three seasons with the Bison, Cox finished with 258 tackles, six interceptions, 14 sacks, and 18 passes defended. In short, Cox was a playmaking/tackling machine. Now, one would think that after being one of the most productive linebackers in FCS history, and winning three National Championships, that Cox would be content with his college career and opt to declare for the NFL draft. Instead, Cox decided to transfer to LSU, so he can play against the best competition and show NFL scouts he can play well at any level.
"I know there's a lot of people that say, 'He did at the FCS level. Maybe he can't do it at the FBS.' But just being able to prove myself is something I've had to deal with all my life. So it's nothing new, and I'm just ready to show everybody what I can do," Cox told the Tigers' team site when explaining his decision.
Before we get into what Cox needs to show NFL scouts in order to improve his stock, let's first take a look at what Cox does as well as a player and some of his positives as a prospect.
Coming in a 6-foot-3 and 233 pounds, Cox has ideal length and size for the linebacker position. Cox is a very fluid athlete with above-average speed for the position. He lined up at multiple spots for the Bison defense, playing MIKE, but also lining up off the edge and in the slot. This versatility is one of Cox’s biggest strengths. Cox has very good ability in space. He has terrific range to the ball in the run game, and is very good at using his athleticism to slip and avoid ensuing blockers to make the tackle. He’s also outstanding in pass coverage. With very good change of direction skills, Cox can cover tight ends and running backs with ease. He has outstanding timing in zone coverage and has knack for breaking on the ball and making the play. As a rusher, Cox has very good first-step quickness and timing off the snap. He is able to beat the blocker to the edge, and has length to finish at the quarterback. Overall, Cox is a very active player with excellent range, athletic ability, and versatility to contribute in multiple ways.
However, not all is positive with Cox, and credit to him for realizing that he still has more to prove. Upon watching his film, I noticed a few areas of improvement that I hope to see as the 2020 season progresses. Cox has a narrow frame and shows very little lower-half mass, thus his ability to bang in the box and stack and shed is an issue for me. While the NFL has transitioned to more of a passing league, you still want your linebackers to be able to stack and shed and not get engulfed on contact. Another area of improvement for Cox is his instincts. Right now, Cox is a see-ball, get-ball type of player, and while he has had success in playing like that, he would be a much better player if he can show that he can react quicker and insert downhill at a faster rate.
After watching his first game against Mississippi State on Saturday, it is safe to say that the transition to the SEC isn’t too big for him. I thought Cox struggled in the first series, taking a few bad angles to the football, but he quickly rebounded and started making plays. Cox flashed his playmaking ability and delivered on some huge defensive plays.
Cox had a key stop on 3rd-and-2 where he used his length to keep the blocker off his frame, and quickly shed to make the stop—exactly what I was hoping to see from this future Sunday player. Cox also had a pick-six that showed his outstanding ability in coverage with terrific awareness and timing to jump the route. He also had a really nice rush late in the fourth quarter that forced an intentional grounding.
All in all, it was a tremendous opener for the FCS transfer, and LSU fans should be very excited to watch Cox roam around their second level of the defense this season. If Cox can continue to play like this, I see a top-45 selection in his future next April.