Landon Cox was the first player Northern Illinois wide receivers coach P.J. Fleck worked with when he arrived to the program three years ago.
At the time, Fleck saw the potential. Cox was 6-foot-3, strong, athletic and smart. Fleck knew if Cox, a Thornton Fractional North High School product, was slightly faster the Huskies would have lost out on him to a Big Ten school.
Fleck also realized Cox needed work. He was missing pieces to the whole puzzle. To this day, Fleck shows his players tape of one of the first snaps in Cox's career. He had failed to block a Wisconsin defensive player on a bubble screen, and Cox's fellow wide receiver got blown up for it.
The purpose of spotlighting Cox's mistake isn't to embarrass him, although it does whenever Fleck plays it, but to show where Cox has come from. His progression is of a player who arrived to DeKalb with plenty of upside, spent the time improving every area of his game, waited his turn and now as a junior is Northern's top target, and a player Fleck believes can play in the NFL for a long time.
"I think Landon Cox is one of the top three receivers in the conference," said Fleck, who starred at wide receiver for Northern Illinois and spent two seasons with the San Francisco 49ers. "Landon is the most dynamic and probably the most well-rounded receiver in the conference, just the way he blocks, the way he catches, his route running, his smarts of the game. He's not going to get the recognition, though. We're not a spread offense."
That's the difficult part of being a wide receiver at Northern Illinois. The Huskies are and have always been a run-oriented team. This is the program that produced NFL backs Michael Turner and Garrett Wolfe. It's a program that had success running the ball for more than a decade with Joe Novak as coach and has continued to have it with Jerry Kill in charge. Northern Illinois led the Mid-American Conference with 2,429 rushing yards this season.
While Cox does lead the Huskies in all receiving categories with 44 receptions, 528 yards and four touchdowns, they don't nearly match the other top conference receivers. The MAC is predominately a passing conference, and the numbers reflect that. Cox ranks 17th in yards. Central Michigan and Ohio have three receivers ahead of him. Buffalo, Toledo and Western Michigan have two in front of him.
"Naturally, you want the ball," Cox said. "You want the ball in your hands. You want to make that play. It takes some time getting used to. It takes time to get used to not having 20 balls thrown your way."
Part of Fleck's teachings was for Cox to realize statistics weren't important to being a quality receiver or being noticed by the NFL scouts. Fleck explained if he did all the little things, such as blocking, that people would notice him just as much.
"I had Michael Turner in the backfield when I played," Fleck said. "We all have a role. People look at what you're doing when you don't have the ball. I stress you need to buy into being a football player. You're more marketable if you get your game well-rounded."
To the start the season, Cox's focus had to be on showing off those smaller parts to his game. He was very ready to take over as Northern Illinois' No. 1 wideout with the graduation of five of the team's top six receivers, but again it was that run that dominated the Huskies' attack. As the season progressed, more and more teams loaded up the box and began forcing NIU to pass. With it, Cox showcased his other attributes.
Cox caught a total of five passes in Northern Illinois' first three games. But then he had five receptions and a touchdown against Idaho. In Week 6, he had a career-high six catches for 70 yards against Toledo. He followed that with 84 yards and two touchdowns against Eastern Michigan. He had six receptions versus Ball State. He broke out for 11 catches for 132 yards against Ohio.
"I just stayed focused," Cox said. "I never got selfish. I never thought, 'Why aren't they passing me the ball?' When the ball started coming my way, I just made plays.
"[Our receivers] knew people were going to overlook us. We knew people were going to underestimate us. We come into it with a chip on our shoulder. We always have something to prove."
That could be the case again when the Huskies meet South Florida in the International Bowl in Toronto on Jan. 2.
"It definitely could be a situation like that," Cox said. "You got [running back] Chad Spann running for 20 touchdowns this season and also [running back] Me'co Brown did a good job. They will be focused on the run, and we are ready to make plays. We are going to be ready as wideouts. I'm very excited. We just see this as a chance to prove ourselves again."
Scott Powers covers high school and college sports for ESPNChicago.com and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.