UMass' Cox makes lasting impression

It was the type of play that stays with you.

The shotgun snap came from the 9-yard line, meaning UMass running back Michael Cox took the handoff at about the Miami (Ohio) 13. A hole opened up the middle, and he hit it. A linebacker tried to fill the gap, but Cox brushed away Jaytee Swanson’s waist-high arm tackle and bounced out to the right and into daylight.

Tight end Rob Blanchflower ran a crossing pattern over the middle and cleared out another linebacker, opening a wide lane to the end zone.

Safety Justin Bowers was the last line of defense, starting in the end zone and charging toward Cox.

The next part happened in a hurry. The 6-foot-3, 214-pound Cox launched himself up and over Bowers, doing a front flip into the end zone and landing on his back.

“It was just kind of a natural reaction I guess,” Cox said in a phone interview Tuesday. “I had seen him in the end zone, and I was thinking in my head, ‘I've got to score this.’ It looked like he was about to go low on me so I had to go high.”

And high he went, landing at No. 5 in the “SportsCenter” top plays for the night and leading off this compilation of the top plays in college football this week.

“Honestly I knew that he could have a big game, I thought he would,” UMass coach Charley Molnar said in a phone interview Tuesday. “We went in thinking we could run the ball against Miami. I knew he would be over 100 yards, I didn’t necessarily expect him to be closer to 200.”

Cox finished the Minutemen’s 27-16 loss to Miami (Ohio) with 30 carries for 188 yards and two scores.

It was the kind of breakout game Cox had hoped for when he decided to transfer to UMass for a season, after spending four years on the bench at Michigan. He earned a degree in general studies in Ann Arbor and was eligible to transfer and play immediately under NCAA rules.

“I think Mike was always a driven individual, he didn’t turn on the switch at UMass,” Molnar said of his new starting tailback. “This gives him a new lease on life and he’s certainly taken advantage of it.”

The Dorchester, Mass., native had only 19 carries for 169 yards and two touchdowns in three seasons with the Wolverines (he redshirted in 2008). He said the opportunity to earn real playing time at UMass was a big draw.

But Cox is not bitter about his time in Ann Arbor.

“I loved my experience at Michigan,” he said. “I wish I could’ve played more but I'm still happy with everything there.”

When UMass traveled to Ann Arbor in Week 3 to face the Wolverines, who coasted to a 63-13 win, Cox admitted it was a bit weird for him. Seeing the places he used to live, walking into the Big House, Michigan Stadium, where he spent so many Saturdays, then heading into the visiting locker room didn’t feel natural.

He carried the ball 18 times for 76 yards in that game, both at that point season highs for the Minutemen.

“It definitely was fun,” he said of going back to Michigan.

As it turns out, that performance may have foreshadowed what he did against Miami (Ohio).

“He had great yards after contact,” Molnar said of Cox’s outing against the Redhawks. “There were times he was hit by a linebacker or down lineman and he ripped right through the contact. He never went out of bounds willingly. Almost every time he would bring wood to the defender.

“I saw him in the locker room afterward, and he was as fresh as if we’d just gone through a Friday walkthrough.”

Both Cox and Molnar credited the offensive line for part of the improvement in the running game, the coach saying having the same starting line two weeks in a row helped the entire offense.

Molnar called Cox a natural leader, saying he’s a great presence in the locker room. His experience at a big-time football institution can only help as the Minutemen transition to the FBS level this season.

“He’s got a good personality,” the first-year coach said. “He’s not the loudest guy in the locker room but certainly his voice can be heard.”

The other thing that can be heard in the UMass locker room is the music Cox often plays to get himself ready for practice and keep his teammates loose. When told his coach couldn’t recognize any of the songs or artists he plays, Cox had a good laugh.

“I just try to play whatever,” he said. “I play a lot of different stuff.”

And while Molnar may not know Lil Wayne from Reggie Wayne, he knows that Cox continuing to play at a high level will be important to the Minutemen’s continued improvement.

“There’s no doubt,” he said. “As we hit some tough weather, especially in those Midwest games, even in Boston, we’re going to have to run the football. I feel really good not only with Mike but also with the other guys we have in the offensive backfield.”

It’s important to remember that Cox wasn’t the starter to open the season, with redshirt senior Chris Burns getting the bulk of the carries in the opener against UConn. Cox still has to prove his day against the Redhawks wasn’t a fluke.

But a day like he had this past Saturday will stay with anyone who sees it.

“I haven’t seen it yet,” Cox said of his personal highlight, “but everybody’s been telling me I made it on ‘SportsCenter,’ made it to No. 5. It definitely felt great, being recognized on a show like that. Everybody in the country is trying to get on that. All my friends back home were telling me they saw it. It was pretty cool.”

Asked if it was a once-in-a-lifetime move, Cox left himself room for a repeat.

“We’ve got a long season,” he said, “so you never know.”

Jack McCluskey is an editor for ESPN.com and a frequent contributor to ESPNBoston.com. Follow him on Twitter @jack_mccluskey.