By Scott M. Johnson Herald Writer
Taylor Cox doesn’t want to name names, which is understandable because none of that matters now. All he’ll say is that the defining moment of his football life came at the conclusion of a phone conversation with a college coach from one of the in-state programs.
“The coach was brutal,” Cox said last week, remembering the recruiting process he went through during his days at Jackson High School. “He said he couldn’t use me (because of academic issues) and hung up the phone.
“That was the low point of my career. It was depressing. I knew I was better than what I was showing in the classroom. It all kind of hit me at once.”
Want to watch Cox in action? Kansas’ game against Rice on Saturday at 12:30 p.m. will be televised locally on Root Sports
And so began the circuitous journey of Taylor Cox from Jackson High to Lawrence, Kan., where he is finally fulfilling his dream of playing NCAA Division I football. Cox always had the talent to play at this level, but it took some harsh criticism to inspire his work ethic in the classroom.
Having lost out on possible scholarship offers from several Pacific-10 Conference schools, Cox dedicated himself to academics at junior college and is now getting a second chance to play big-time college football at the University of Kansas.
“In high school, I didn’t really go out of my way to succeed in the classroom,” he said via telephone from Kansas last week, before making his debut with the Jayhawks on Saturday night. “It definitely was a wakeup call. At the same time, everything happens for a reason. It’s a blessing in disguise.”
Cox’s “blessing” got off to quite a start when the Jayhawks opened their season Saturday night. He ran for 124 yards and a touchdown in a reserve role, helping lead KU to a 31-17 win over South Dakota State.
It had been a long time coming for Cox, who put up back-to-back 1,000-yard rushing seasons during his final two years at Jackson but didn’t have the grades to move on to a four-year school. Through the Barton Football Camp, he connected with a Northern California junior-college program at College of the Siskiyous and got his football career back on track. He ran for 1,507 yards and 14 touchdowns in 10 games last season, earning juco All-America honors, but his most important statistic may have been the 2.8 grade-point average.
Cox began to generate interest from schools such as Colorado, Texas Tech and Utah State but jumped at the chance to play for Charlie Weis shortly after the former NFL and Notre Dame coach was hired by KU in December. Cox visited the school in late January, fell in love with Lawrence and spent almost the entire spring and summer there, taking classes and working out with teammates.
Two Kansas tailbacks were suspended in the spring, and Cox moved up the depth chart even before August practices began. Throughout training camp, he continued to impress the coaching staff.
“He’s done a really good job,” KU running backs coach Reggie Mitchell said last week. “He came in this summer, and coach Weis has him listed as No. 2 on the depth chart. He’s really done a good job since he got here.”
The real test comes in the classroom, where Cox already has found peace. The fall quarter officially began last Monday, and Cox was actually enjoying the academic part of college — particularly a class he’s taking on slavery in Egypt and other Middle Eastern cultures.
“Now I pride myself on being the guy in the classroom that comes prepared to contribute,” he said. “It’s actually enjoyable. I’m basically breaking out of my shell in the classroom and showing that I can keep up with the content.”
Cox’s academic turnaround has been so inspiring that Joel Vincent, his former coach at Jackson, asked him to speak to some current players about the importance of academics. When Cox was home in Mill Creek for 10 days during the spring, Vincent had him talk to a few players who were struggling in the classroom.
“Guys were really receptive to it,” Vincent said. “How can you not be? ‘A JC All-American, going Division I, and he’s sitting down to talk with me?’
“I went that route with these guys because at this age, that’s so much more powerful than just another adult talking to them. I’m just another adult, another old guy, telling them what to do. Here’s a young guy, a hip guy, a guy who went through the exact same things they’re going through, and they’re much more receptive to that.”
Cox can admit now that he didn’t have the right focus in the classroom during his days at Jackson.
“Basically, all I thought I had to do was perform on the field,” he said. “I wasn’t a bad kid, I just didn’t go to class. I wasn’t a troublemaker, I just didn’t apply myself in the classroom. It was probably one of the most naive things I ever did in my life. I’m just glad things worked out.”
In Lawrence, Cox has tried to live up to his talk in the classroom, and he’s also worked harder than ever to become a better football player. Whether it was 6 a.m. runs during the summer, his extra work in the weight room or the long practice sessions under Weis, Cox came into this season ready to roll.
“I’m probably in the best shape of my life,” the 5-foot-11, 210-pound junior said.
He’s already formed a bond with several teammates, including former Skyline High School star quarterback Jake Heaps, a BYU transfer who, like Cox, is trying to take advantage of a second chance with the Jayhawks. Heaps is currently sitting out the season under NCAA transfer rules while former Notre Dame starter Dayne Crist runs the offense.
Even Weis himself is trying to make a new start after leading Notre Dame back to a top-25 football program before getting fired after a 6-6 season in 2009. It seems that just about everyone in the KU football program has gone to Lawrence looking for a fresh start.
And Cox is more than happy to be a part of it.
“Everyone around Lawrence is excited for the new coaching staff and the new players,” he said. “You can feel the energy. Everyone is excited, and I’m blessed to be a part of that.”