TEMPE, Ariz. -- There's no place like home. Stay true to your roots.
Be a hometown hero!
Arizona State fans have been screaming it for years, yet it's become a trend all too familiar: A highly touted local high school player spurns the Sun Devils to play his college ball out of the state.
With the prep talent level in Arizona continuing to rise and the number of four and five-star prospects growing, it came as no surprise that keeping those players in Arizona was one of head coach Todd Graham’s top priorities upon taking over in Tempe.
Just over a month after he took over, Graham netted his first big local prize in running back D.J. Foster. The Saguaro High School product went on to produce a Freshman All-American season.
The Sun Devils are now hoping that they will have another locally-produced star in linebacker Chans Cox. The former Blue Ridge standout comes to Tempe this season after a heralded two-way prep career that earned him a four-star ranking from all major scouting services.
During the 2013 recruiting cycle, Cox’s offer list read like a who’s who of major college football, with names like Notre Dame, Oklahoma, Nebraska and USC among them. Even with such royalty on the offer sheet, it was Graham’s promise of a new era of Sun Devil football, rather than the hope of becoming a hometown hero, that helped bring Cox to Tempe.
“I didn’t feel any pressure,” Cox said of staying in-state. “It was something that I came across during the recruiting process. I wanted to be close to my family. Coach Graham came in and said he was going to be changing the program around. He’s a man of character. That was something that I was all in for. That helped to make my decision of wanting to stay close to home. Being from in-state, that made it all that much better.”
The key values that Graham is basing this “new era” around resonated deeply with Cox, and it all began with Cox’s first interaction with Graham at an offseason camp.
“I saw him giving a great speech,” said Cox. “He talked about discipline and character, and that’s the kind of thing he looks at even before talent. That is something that really hit home for me. After that, I was really looking forward to talking with him and meeting with him.
That focus on values is a mindset Cox is accustomed to from his prep days.
“The character and discipline that they were looking for was something that goes a long way for me,” said Cox. “It was instilled at Blue Ridge, and it was something that we really looked into. We represented the name on the front of the jersey. That played a huge role, and that played a huge role here at ASU.”
Along with the appeal of the off-field ideology, ASU’s aggressive defensive philosophy was another major selling point to Cox.
“It’s awesome coming into this program, knowing how high-octane this defense is,” Cox said. “We try to be like the offense in that everything is fast. It’s very exciting to be a part of that. Knowing how great this defense is was a recruit is another thing that sold me.”
Even though ASU ultimately was his pick, Cox’s prestigious offer list made for a tough decision. Cox made a verbal commitment to ASU last June, but in the ensuing eight months until National Signing Day, other programs made some attractive sales pitches.
“There was some,” temptation of flipping his commit, said Cox. “It came down to Notre Dame and ASU. It took a lot of thinking. My dad and I just woke up one day and felt great about ASU, especially with Coach Graham being there and what he’s doing with the program. It just really made me feel comfortable.”
While ASU’s reputation amongst the state’s elite high school players may have suffered over the last decade, Cox believes that Graham and his staff have the Sun Devil brand name on the rise in those circles.
“I think it’s great,” Cox said of ASU’s reputation. “A lot of people don’t realize the talent that comes out of Arizona. The year they won the Rose Bowl, that’s what they had: In-state players. It was the bond that they had. That’s what we’re looking for at ASU, to keep these guys in state.”
The on-field success experienced by Foster and fellow local product Jaxon Hood last season—both Freshman All-Americans in 2012—in conjunction with Cox’s commitment, have given Graham and ASU significant signs of reversing the state’s exodus of top talent. The chance to be a key component to re-establishing ASU as a local player’s top choice is one that holds great appeal for Cox.
“D.J. and I had a lot of opportunities to go anywhere in the country, and a lot of the kids are seeing that we are staying in state because we believe what Coach Graham is saying,” Cox said. “We want to change the program around. I think that helps a lot of the in-state guys go ‘Wow, these guys have all these opportunities, and they’re staying close to home and play at ASU.’”
So eager was Cox to begin his Sun Devil career that he graduated early from Blue Ridge last winter and came to ASU as a mid-year signee so he could participate in spring football. However, he suffered a right foot injury early on and spent most of the spring session in a walking boot.
Now fully healed and medically cleared, Cox remains disappointed he didn’t get more on field work. Nevertheless, he still managed to take advantage of his time as much as he possibly could.
“It was pretty frustrating,” said Cox. “That was the main reason I graduated early, to get there in spring ball and getting those college reps. It was really frustrating, but I was able to get closer to the guys on the team, learn a lot of the plays, and get familiar with the defense. I was able to get with the players, watch film, sit in the meetings and meet with my position coach, Coach (Paul) Randolph. He’s a great coach who really helped make my decision. I was able to build those relationships, and that is something that is really big at ASU. I was able to do that over spring ball. That was really comforting.
“It was still definitely worth it, and I was glad I made that decision.”
Even though he’s only been in Tempe for a few months and watched most of the action from the sidelines, the difference between the high school and college games has been immediately apparent to Cox.
“One of the first things I noticed, especially coming from a small school like Blue Ridge, was speed and size,” said Cox. “Everybody is fast and big now. It’s something I had to get used to, and am still getting used to. A lot of it is technique and footwork. It’s one thing I’ve really been focusing on in the weight room and on the field right now.”
Once the 6-foot-3, 225-pound Cox returns to the practice field in August, he will see the majority of his time at the Devilbacker position. Cox’s speed, tackling ability, and aggression fit very well into the hybrid spot where Carl Bradford racked up 11.5 sacks last season, and learning from one of the nation’s best defenders is a major bonus.
“It really excites me,” said Cox of playing Devilbacker. “Being behind Carl Bradford is a great experience. He’s one of the best in the country, and I get to learn from him. He pulls me aside and helps me out. We’ve been able to build that bond together. I’m really excited about this. The position presents a lot of opportunities for big plays. I’m excited to play that position.”
But to ASU’s coaching staff, a player of Cox’s rare athleticism presents an opportunity to move him into different positions in the second level. With the upcoming battle to fill Brandon Magee’s vacated WILL linebacker spot, Cox could also see reps there.
“Coach Graham has told me to be ready and learn a lot of the linebacker positions, not just Devil, but WILL and SAM. I need to understand them in case I ever need to go into those spots.”
Looking towards the fall, Cox has set some lofty individual goals for himself.
“Seeing D.J. Foster and Jaxon Hood come in and being Freshman All-Americans, that has always been a goal for me,” Cox said. “That, and an Academic All-American is something I would love to achieve. Playing behind Carl, I should have a lot of opportunity to learn from him.”
Yet ultimately, it’s what it means to be a member of the Sun Devil program that means the most to Cox.
“It means everything. I can’t say it enough,” said Cox. “It’s character and discipline. Not just on the field, but off the field in the classroom and community. All of that plays into our goal, and our goal is to win a national championship.”