Fletcher Cox has come full circle

From time to time, Fletcher Cox will go back and peek at his freshman video.

The sight of his undersized, younger self flailing about makes for good comedy for him and his coaches.

“I always go back and laugh at it,” Mississippi State’s junior defensive tackle said.

“My freshman year, I was pretty much playing off of talent and didn’t quite know what was going on.”

Early on, it was painful for him to dissect film of himself after his freshman season. Though he started four of the 12 games he played in, recording 29 tackles and 3.5 for loss, Cox said the sight of his sometimes-awkward technique and raw behavior left him cringing.

He used his faults as motivation for his second season and he burst onto the SEC scene as a more disruptive lineman, with 11 starts and 29 more tackles, including 6.5 for loss.

Now, Cox enters the Franklin American Mortgage Music City Bowl against Wake Forest as a top junior prospect in the 2012 NFL draft. He’s grown physically and mentally, and he ended the regular season as one of the most imposing defensive linemen in the SEC.

Cox has a career-high 12.5 tackles for loss and four sacks. Scouts Inc. ranks Cox as the No. 20 overall prospect in next year’s draft.

“This is the best season I’ve had at Mississippi State,” Cox said.

But things didn’t start great for the 6-foot-4, 295-pound lineman. After garnering a ton of preseason love from around the league, Cox was one of five Mississippi State players suspended for the opener against Memphis for violating team rules.

Cox was forced to sit at home and watch as his Bulldogs routed Memphis 59-14. Cox was happy to see his teammates win, but it was hard for him to watch from afar.

There were moments when he was shouting at the TV, playing coach from his couch. He called his teammates afterward to congratulate them and talked about specific things to change going forward, but no matter how much constructive criticism he delivered, he knew it wouldn’t make up for letting his teammates down.

“I never look back at that game,” he said.

Cox said that moment changed his outlook on the season, motivating him to work harder on the field. It took him a few weeks to get on track, but recorded all of his tackles for loss in SEC play.

Cox also used his time to energize defenders around him. Defensive playmakers had to be replaced from the 2011 season, and Cox took it upon himself to make sure those bodies up front didn’t stumble.

He even made sure teammates forced him to take his game to new heights. Cox is good individually, but it takes more than one player to keep a defense going.

“I always tell them that I’m a leader, but sometimes, push me,” Cox said.

Cox’s Bulldog career could be coming to an end Friday, but he isn’t concerned with that. He hasn’t made a decision about the NFL and doesn’t plan to until after sitting down with his family following the bowl game.

He’s keeping quiet about which way he’s leaning, but admits it would be a “no-brainer” for him to enter the draft if he was projected to go in the first round. Beyond that, Cox will have a long discussion with those close to him.

Regardless of what Cox decides, he feels blessed. The draft questions can get stale, but they help to remind him of where he came from.

They lead him to think of how that lost freshman might have a real NFL future.

“Going back to my freshmen year and then seeing where I am now shows that hard work pays off,” Cox said.