By Joe Scalzo
Two years ago, Nate Cox was a 24-year-old ex-defensive lineman fresh off a five-year stint as a sergeant in the Marines and a five-month stint in Afghanistan.
Cox hadn’t played football in six years, but when he met with Geoff Jones, the head coach at Santa Ana (Calif.) College, Jones told him (presumably with a straight face), “Well, if you were able to do all that, I think I can make you into a community college football player.”
“I didn’t know where it was going to take me at the beginning,” Cox said. “To be honest, did I think I would be a Division I football player? I don’t know.
“I was just playing for the love of the game.”
Cox (6-foot-4, 255) played in eight games as a freshman, recording 34 tackles (three for a loss), then caught the eye of scouts last fall, recording 28 tackles and a team-best 6.5 sacks in 10 games to earn first team all-conference honors.
By midseason, Youngstown State had offered him a scholarship — the first college to do so. He liked YSU’s tradition, he liked the coaching staff’s experience and he liked what he heard.
“They just seemed to be the most loyal and the most serious with me,” said Cox, who graduated in 2005 from Plainfield High just outside Indianapolis. “The whole recruiting process, they never lied to me. They told me what they expected of me.
“When I took my visit, I knew this was the place.”
Just as adjusting to civilian life took time — “I’d see guys complaining that McDonald’s food wasn’t fast enough and I just wanted to grab somebody,” he said, smiling — Cox is still getting used to being a Division I football player.
“It’s a full-time job here,” he said. “But if I’m going to do something, I’m going to do it to the fullest. And they expect the fullest out of you here.”
YSU coach Eric Wolford said he values Cox for his leadership and his attitude and sees him as a run-stuffing defensive end, someone who can fill the C-gap between the tackle and the tight end.
“A lot of times in the game of football, when it comes to running the football, it’s a battle over that C-gap,” Wolford said. “So you better be a bad boy. Whoever has the best C-gap defender is probably going to win.”
Cox struggled the first few practices — many high schools and colleges don’t even use a tight end anymore, leaving the edge open — but has emerged over the last few practices, Wolford said.
“Nate’s got a high motor,” said YSU guard Chris Elkins. “He never stops.”
Cox, 26, is friendly and talkative in interviews, joking that he’s fully Americanized again because he’s able to complain about classwork and the physical and mental demands of playing college football.
“It’s a grind,” he said. “But when it comes down to it, this is where I want to be.”
And it still hasn’t hit him that he’s here, he said.
“Going into that first game against Dayton, it’s gonna be pretty cool,” he said. “I think that might be when it finally sets in, the first snap of the first game.”