Torrie Cox has proven to be a big-playmaker on both defense and special teams for the Buccaneers
Here's a recipe for a nervous training camp.
Come in as a sixth-round draft choice, one year removed, who played all of two games as a rookie before a serious knee injury. Spend the better part of a year rehabbing that knee while you could be refining your game. Play a position that has two former league interception champs returning as the starters and a high-profile free agent coming in to claim the nickel back job. Toil for a team whose head coach supposedly doesn't favor young players.
That's what Torrie Cox as Training Camp '04 dawned on the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
And it didn't bother him a bit.
I felt really comfortable coming into camp because I know myself," said Cox. "When you know yourself and what you can do, it makes things easy on you. I accepted God and his plan first, then I went back to doing what I needed to do to get back to where I was. I'm probably a little better than I was last year. So everything worked out well."
There goes Cox, faster than expected, giving away the ending. Of course, if you've been following the team, you certainly couldn't have missed Cox's 2004 emergence. Basically a rookie given his lost first season, Cox has energized the Bucs' kickoff return game and recently grabbed a bigger role in the team's nickel defense package. The size of his contribution through Week 10 is legitimately a surprise given the fact that he spent three of the first four games of the season on the inactive list.
But there he is, second in the NFL in kickoff return average at 26.7 yards per. And there he was, last weekend, dancing into the end zone with his first touchdown. Unfortunately, those two elements didn't overlap and the Buccaneers are still looking for their first kickoff return TD as a franchise. Cox's first score was a 55-yard interception return off the San Francisco 49ers last Sunday, the icing on a 35-3 cake.
The first contribution led to the second. Had the Bucs not needed a kickoff return man to replace Frank Murphy, lost to injured reserve, Cox might have languished much of the season on the inactive list. And had he not grabbed the job with such aplomb, Cox might not have stayed active long enough to find a spot on defense.
Special teams was the way in for me. I'm a good defensive player. Once I learned the system, I knew I would find my way. The coaches see a lot of players out here who can play, and I was one of those guys. The timing wasn't always right for me to be out on the field, but special teams were big."
Work in the kicking game was not something the 5-10, 181-pound cornerback accepted grudgingly. It's much more than a part-time job for Cox, who was a three-time special teams MVP at the University of Pittsburgh.
"I love special teams," he said. "They helped me develop my skills and get out there on defense. Now I'm just taking it one day at a time and doing what I've got to do every time I'm out there on the field. I want to make explosion plays any time I'm out there."
Cox doesn't just return kicks; he covers them, as well. He has four special teams tackles and a fumble recovery on kickoff coverage. In training camp, he was clearly one of the more dynamic players when it came to the edges of the punt return game, either as the 'gunner' or as one of the players who blocks the gunner.
But he has been most visible in bringing back kicks, where he has already helped turn around the Bucs' return game, a sore spot last season. Obviously, the team's offseason emphasis on that aspect of the game has paid off as well; Tampa Bay is second in the NFL in percentage of kickoff returns that gain at least 20 yards. Only San Diego, with a 77.3% success rate in that endeavor, has been better than the Bucs, at 73.2%.
Cox could also become the first Buccaneer ever to lead the NFL in kickoff return average. His primary competition is now fixed at 27.2, as Detroit's big-play return man Eddie Drummond suffered a fractured shoulder blade on Thursday and is out for the season.
And, of course, Cox could be the one who breaks that 29-year drought of kickoff-return scoring. It's his onus now, as it is for each new Buccaneer who makes a splash in the return game, no matter how briefly. But, though we hate to say it, the breezily confident Cox may be just the man to finally break through. He might have done just that two weeks ago on an impressive cut-back run against Atlanta had he not slipped on the turf without being touched.
Cox thinks he's close.
"I'm getting more confident every day and every game," he said. "It's coming. I don't know when it's coming, but it's coming."
Cox wants to contribute in as many ways as possible. After most practices, he joins a group of players in a spirited, trash-talking round of punt-return exercises with Special Teams Coach Rich Bisaccia. Sometimes they field kicks with one arm, or with a football under each arm, or with Bisaccia holding them back until the last instant. They compare drops and fancy catches. And perhaps they put a thought into their coach's mind about taking over the punt return job.
Cox invariably leaves this drill with a big smile on his face. That has been there for much of the year, in fact, as the success he was sure he would find has indeed been there. Cox stayed positive throughout the long return from his knee injury, and his success in 2004 only makes him feel better.
"I went through a lot last year, but there was no pressure on me," said Cox. "God was always on my side and I knew good things were going to happen. Good things happen to those who wait. I just had to do my rehab and come back strong for this year, because I had to get back on the field. I've always played football, since I was little, and I was always out there on the field, so that was one of my goals, to get back there and help the team win any way I can."