Speedy Cox offers Southern Illinois a versatile weapon
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As Avante Cox raced around the DakotaDome on Oct. 26, 2019 — racking up 193 total yards and three touchdowns for Southern Illinois in a 48-28 win against South Dakota — Mark Watson had an uneasy front-row seat for the breakout performance.
Little did either of them know that day that they would be linked less than a year later.
Watson, the former South Dakota defensive backs coach, experienced just how dangerous Cox can be.
“Unfortunately, it was against me,” Watson said. “You saw from there on out how he’s taken over.”
In June 2020, Watson joined the SIU staff as its wide receivers coach and joined forces with Cox.
“We joke around about it,” said Cox, a junior receiver. “I didn’t know he was going to be my coach in the near future. It became funny.”
Cox’s contributions to the SIU offense after transferring from Wyoming have been no joke.
He caught eight passes for 113 yards and two TDs against Watson and South Dakota. He also rushed for 80 yards, including a 65-yard score on a jet sweep.
While earning second-team All-MVFC and All-Newcomer team honors, Cox led the Salukis in 2019 with 47 receptions for 617 yards and five touchdowns. In the run game, he contributed 212 yards and three touchdowns while averaging 10.1 yards a carry.
As SIU opens the spring 2021 season Saturday at North Dakota (noon, ESPN+), Cox is among three receivers named to the Missouri Valley Football Conference’s preseason all-conference team.
Speed as a weapon
Like that day in October 2019, Cox’s speed has proven to be a challenge for opposing defenses.
“A guy with speed like Avante can change your defensive game plan, especially in the secondary,” Watson said. “He’s definitely grown within the offense.”
When Cox first arrived in Carbondale, he played as an outside receiver. He soon learned the slot position as well, along with what others’ responsibilities are around him.
“I don’t have too much size to me,” the 5-foot-10, 170-pound Cox said, “but speed is the No. 1 part of my game. I use it to disguise my routes and what I’m going to do. If I’m running a short route, I might make it seem like I’m running a deep route.”
In the Salukis’ lone fall 2020 game – a 20-17 victory against Southeast Missouri in October – Cox used that strategy by taking three hard steps off the line of scrimmage on one key play.
“It made the defender think I’m going deep,” Cox said. “He ended up slipping and falling, and I caught a little hitch for a touchdown.”
Taking the next step
Now that defenses around the MVFC know about Cox’s talents, Watson expects his top wideout to get plenty of attention.
“I’ve been preparing for him to get double teamed,” Watson said. “Especially me being a former defensive coach, I would assume that it’s coming.”
How SIU reacts to that will determine Cox’s impact.
“I see it as a challenge, and I’m not going to back down from it,” he said. “It’s something that most likely will happen.”
Cox is seeing signs of double teams against his own teammates in practice. He’s worked regularly on how to combat a defense who throws more defenders at him.
When he runs a route, Cox has become more aware of how defenses adjust and where open spots exist.
“The biggest thing I’ve picked up in the last year is picking holes in the defense,” he said. “There’s times where you can just settle down and see where the defense is opening up and sit there for the quarterback. I think that can step the offense up to another level.”
Running at top speed
Along with becoming a more advanced receiver, Cox anticipates being a key part of the running game.
“I don’t think that will die down,” Cox said. “You can put me wherever on the field. You can disguise me. You can use me as a decoy guy.”
That says a lot for a rushing attack that includes sophomore 1,000-yard rusher Javon Williams Jr., who led all NCAA Division I freshmen with 19 TDs last season, and shifty 5-6 sophomore Romier Elliott, who rushed for nearly 500 yards as a freshman.
Using Cox all over the field fits with Watson’s goal of adding creative ways to attack defenses.
“He has one of those skill sets that can pose challenges for defenses,” Watson said. “It’s going to be important for the other wide receivers to step up too and take away that pressure.”
Though his game-changing speed provides an advantage, Cox has another trait that Watson truly appreciates.
“The thing I love about him the most is that he’s a football player,” Watson said. “Obviously he has the speed and physical attributes, but Avante is tough as nails too. He’ll take the poundings and he’ll get right back up.”