By Stephen J. Nesbitt, Daily Sports Editor
Published September 11, 2012
Mike Cox can fly, but you should see him on skates.
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“Fastest seventh grader on skates in the world or something like that,” offered fifth-year senior center Elliott Mealer.
Well, something like that.
Cox, the Massachusetts starting running back, spent four seasons at Michigan before using the NCAA’s graduate transfer rule to spend a season with the Minutemen. He tallied 177 rushing yards and two touchdowns on 19 attempts as a Wolverine.
Cox doesn’t explain this much anymore, but football was far from his first love.
“Hockey,” Cox said with a laugh during a phone interview Tuesday. “That used to be my sport back in the day.”
It was more than just his game — it was his specialty. At 12 years old, the fleet-footed right winger traveled to an East Coast-West Coast all-star tournament. He scored seven goals, won the fastest-skater award and was named tournament MVP.
And he landed in Sports Illustrated’s ‘Faces in the Crowd’ feature.
Six years later, Cox was sitting in a Schembechler Hall meeting room as a freshman running back at Michigan, listening to the coaches spotlight several players on the team for feats off the football field. His ‘Faces in the Crowd’ shot flashed up on the screen and he chuckled. His mother must have sent it in.
“They showed the team me playing hockey,” Cox said. “Everybody was so surprised.”
But then it all started to make a little sense. The genesis of his running style — the cuts, the jukes, the burst — was uncovered. Cox was a hockey player, and that translated to his approach in the ground game.
Redshirt junior right tackle Taylor Lewan called Cox “extremely elusive.” Senior defensive tackle Will Campbell referred to the tailback’s “hockey stops.”
“You see it on film — he still does it a little bit when he runs to the sideline,” Campbell said. “Certain running backs, when they cut they just get out real fast, but with Mike Cox, it’s like he’s on skates — he gets really low and then gets out real fast.”
Cox had never thought of it that way. He had stopped playing hockey after his freshman year at Avon Old Farms School, a private high school in Avon, Conn., and didn’t debut as a running back for another two years. His skill set, though, transferred nicely from the ice to the field.
“It was kind of funny,” Cox said. “I didn’t really notice it until a lot of people told me that I kind of cut like I played hockey.
“I think that does give me a lot more excitability, to cut on a dime and my side-to-side movement being so fast because of being on hockey skates when I was younger.”
How about another hockey connection? Michigan senior defenseman and assistant captain Lee Moffie was a year behind Cox at Avon Old Farms and played quarterback. Moffie spent a year watching Cox from the sidelines and remembers handing off to him a number of times.
What Moffie remembered most, though, is that Cox wasn’t a scrub hockey player.
“He had the biggest hockey hit I have ever seen in my life,” Moffie said. “Put a kid clear over the boards.”
And Moffie has his fair share of big hits. That strength, though, shouldn’t be surprising. On Monday, Lewan broke into a wide smile when first asked about facing Cox this weekend.
“I remember when I first got here he was squatting with the linemen,” Lewan said, “and that’s impressive for a running back.”
The lightly used Cox’s shining moment at Michigan — apart from a pair of touchdowns against FCS opponent Delaware State in 2009 — was when he won a footrace with the secondary on a 68-yard touchdown sprint in the 2011 Spring Game.
The Michigan defense faced Cox as the lead scout team tailback for the last few seasons. On Saturday, they’ll face him in front of more than 110,000 fans at Michigan Stadium.
Massachusetts coach Charley Molnar has already slotted Cox as the starter, after the back gained 32 yards on 20 carries in two starts this fall.
“It doesn’t matter if we’re playing Michigan or the Detroit Lions, this guy believes in himself and believes in the people around him,” Molnar said. “I think that's just how he’s wired. I’m glad to have him.”
Molnar said Cox has “assimilated himself” well at Massachusetts, going from a powerhouse program to a fledgling football team in its first season at the Division-I FBS level.
“He’s a popular guy,” Molnar said. “If we voted for captains today I don't know that he would win but he would be a high vote getter. His enthusiasm is contagious and he has become a really tough guy in the short time that he has been with us.
“And maybe he looks at it as ‘going home,’ (but) all I know is that he has real excitement in his eyes this week.”
Hoke and the players were all quick to say that they were rooting for Cox, just not this weekend.
“You step in between those white lines and it’s another opponent,” said redshirt junior safety Thomas Gordon. “We were all happy for Mike to get this opportunity to play, and we’re looking forward to playing him.”
Cox was listed as a 6-foot running back for Michigan last season. Massachusetts now has him listed at 6-foot-3.
Who knows, maybe he’s back on skates.
— This story was updated at 11:20 a.m. on Sept. 12 to add additional information.