When head football coach Eric Wolford introduced former military sergeant-turned Penguins recruit Nate Cox on National Signing Day, he immediately issued a challenge.
“If you guys want to get froggy with him, go ahead,” Wolford said in reference to Cox’s past. “I challenge you.”
With that, the respect Wolford has for Cox is clear. In fact, Cox said Wolford’s and Youngstown State University’s interest was apparent from the beginning.
“I talked to a lot of schools, but they really were the one that was most serious right off the bat,” Cox said. “Coach Wolford just liked my background as far as being a little bit older and the leadership I can bring to the team.”
In addition to Cox’s impressive stat line at Santa Ana College, with 51 tackles and 6.5 sacks last season, Wolford said he is happy to add the intangibles that the 26-year-old defensive lineman provides to the YSU team.
“He’s a unique guy that has tremendous leadership and likes to work hard,” Wolford said. “He’s just so much more mature than the majority of the players we deal with. I think he’s going to bring some leadership to our defensive line.”
The Penguins are hoping it will be similar to the effect he had at Santa Ana for the past two seasons.
“He was just a great guy to have for a couple years with a bunch of 18-,19- and 20-year-olds,” said Geoff Jones, head football coach at Santa Ana. “It was just great to have a guy who’s in his mid-20s, been around the block and been in Afghanistan.”
After almost six years in the U.S. Marine Corps, Cox was equally as grateful to have Jones and the Santa Ana Dons.
Returning to his home in Huntington Beach, Calif., from Afghanistan in 2010, Cox began his search for the right school. While academics were his first priority, football was a close second.
Eventually, Santa Ana became the clear choice.
“We talked about what I had in mind, what I wanted to do and what the football program offered,” Cox said. “Coach Jones just had open arms for me as far as really accepting where I came from and what I could bring to the table.”
Cox joined the Dons in 2011. But the move from the battlefield to the gridiron posed its challenges.
“It was definitely a transition from running with a pack on your back every day with boots on, to going out there on the field and competing,” Cox said. “I wouldn’t say I had to learn it all over again, but just the level of talent from when I was in high school to even junior college — the speed of the game was just unreal at first.”
Originally a linebacker at Santa Ana, Cox switched to defensive end midway through the season.
“A couple guys got hurt, so he went right in, and I think he got a sack on his first play,” Jones said. “He just leads with his tenacity, and he’s a vocal leader.”
Last season, Cox was voted team captain for the Dons. Jones said Cox played as well as anybody in the conference.
“I think he really made himself into a great football player,” Jones said. “One of the great things about him is he makes everybody around him better. He’ll make every single guy on that defense — especially in that defensive box — all better players. He’ll just raise the entire level of the YSU defense.”
Cox will get the chance to revamp a Penguins defensive line that lost a majority of its starters to graduation last season. He said Wolford and the coaching staff have asked him to be a leader on the defensive unit as well.
“The team here is great, and the guys here are awesome,” Cox said. “So, I can’t wait to just get back on the field and see what YSU football is all about.”