The decisive play on that clear night in eastern Ohio came from none other than the Kansas City native. On second down of the Penguins’ only possession of the overtime frame, Cox drilled running back Tevin McCaster five yards behind the line of scrimmage. Two plays later, Zak Kennedy yanked a field goal attempt, returning possession to the Bison. Cam Pederson connected on the winning field goal to sink then No. 8 YSU.
Roughly 14 months ago, Jabril Cox opened his redshirt freshman campaign as a second-string linebacker, behind a group of high-profile returning seniors. In hindsight, his stuff on second down proved to be one of a key group of plays that turned the tides and set NDSU on a course to yet another national championship.
The NDSU football program is no stranger to outstanding individual efforts, but the fact that it came from a redshirt freshman was stunning. Across a four-month span, Cox morphed from a name on the depth chart to the Bison’s new defensive star.
When the dust settled on the campaign, Cox led all Bison players with 75 tackles, adding 4.5 sacks and an interception. He was a finalist for the Jerry Rice Award, MVFC Newcomer and Freshman of the Year and a HERO Sports Freshman First-Team All-American.
No one was more surprised than himself.
“I never thought of (becoming NDSU’s leading tackler). Coming in, I just wanted to play my role. I knew we had a couple of good leaders and older guys in front of me,” Cox explained. “I just wanted to learn from them. When my time got called, I knew I had to step up to the plate and make the most of it.”
Cox’s number was called that night against YSU. After starting “SAM” linebacker Chris Board suffered a knee injury, Cox was inserted into the lineup. By the end of the game, Bison head coach Chris Klieman famously referred to it as his “coming-out party.”
With Board shelved, Cox needed to step up to the plate and did just that. The Raytown South High School product immediately became the top option at SAM linebacker, a spot he never relinquished.
More than a year removed from his coming out party, Jabril Cox and the No. 1 ranked Bison will face Youngstown State again this Saturday. This time around, there’s no doubt the Penguins will be familiar with the freakish athlete the Bison have at linebacker.
Cox’s ability is predicated on his raw athleticism. At 6-foot-3-inches and 231 pounds, the sophomore blends strength with preternatural speed. That mix is what allows him to cover wide receivers with ease, all the while rushing the passer and breaking to the ball on run plays.
“It’s mostly a fast-flowing, athletic style of play,” he described. “I do a lot of reacting to the ball and making the most of it and showing my speed. That’s what I like to do.”
Quickness has always been evident with Cox. Frequently, Klieman deploys Cox “to the field,” meaning he plays on the opposite hash mark of where the ball is being snapped. Otherworldly speed and instincts allow Cox to make tackles other linebackers couldn’t attempt. As teams try to avoid him, he’ll frequently bolt to the other side of the field and bring down the ball carrier. After a game this season, Klieman even confirmed what many already knew: Cox is the fastest player on the team.
Cox’s physical attributes play perfectly into his SAM linebacker position. “I’m mostly out in space and covering the slot,” he said. “Sometimes I’ll bump into the box, but I’m mostly covering the No. 2 or 3 receiver. I’m mostly setting the edge for the defense.”
Cox has proven to be a difficult matchup for both opposing receivers and quarterbacks. He’s intercepted four passes this season — returning two for touchdowns — and tallied seven pass breakups thanks to increased film study.
“I’ve been doing a lot more film study and looking at the routes. Last year, I was going in the game and covering the guy,” he remarked. “Now, I can go in and pre-snap guess what the route is going to be and get a jump on those.”
His pick-six against Delaware is evidence of this transformation. Seeing two receivers breaking on slant routes, Cox jumped the route and, within seconds, the Bison doubled their lead.
Cox isn’t afraid to get his hands dirty either. Toughness is an area he is particularly proud of, which has been on display in his role in punt coverage.
Playing alongside the likes of tackling machines Robbie Grimsley and Dan Marlette is a luxury for Cox’s aggressive style. “It relieves some stress on me as well. I know those guys are going to do their part and I’ll do mine,” he stated. Having that security around him allows Cox the freedom to put his speed to use and chase down the ball.
Cox was a standout at five positions in high school, featuring as a quarterback, wide receiver, safety, cornerback and linebacker. He received offers from five other Missouri Valley schools, as well as Towson. There was no consensus on the Missouri native, who 247 Sports listed as a dual-threat quarterback.
Missouri State scouted Cox as a wide receiver, whereas Northern Iowa viewed him as a quarterback. It came down to NDSU and Illinois State, but the Bison ultimately won out on the chase for Cox. South Dakota and Southern Illinois were also in the running.
From the beginning, the Bison saw the two-star recruit as a linebacker, and have been rewarded for their foresight. Still, Cox itches for an opportunity on offense.
“I’ve been asking coach, ‘Just put me on, since I’m just a sophomore, punt return or kick return. Next couple of years, just give me a couple of plays on the offense and see what I can do,'” he commented. “I feel like I still have it in me and always have it in me.”
Even for the precocious linebacker, his development is still a work in progress. When asked to assess his performance this season, without hesitation Cox modestly graded himself at a ‘C.’ His reasoning is simple: “I’m never satisfied,” he explained.
On pace for more tackles than last year, it’s unfathomable to consider how good Jabril Cox would be at an ‘A’ grade. That level of play is no doubt coming, and much like the man himself, it’ll arrive much sooner than anyone could have imagined.