Plugged In... A Look at Two Unsung Heroes on the Road to Jacksonville
Nov. 29, 2006
By Bill Hass
GREENSBORO, N.C. - At some point during Saturday's ACC championship game, it's possible Mike Cox will meet "Shrek."
The two have never been formally introduced. But their encounter might happen like this: Cox, Georgia Tech's fullback, will barrel into the line as a lead blocker for tailback Tashard Choice. Wake Forest nose guard Jamil Smith, "Shrek" to his teammates, will be playing his gap, looking to stop Choice or turn him in another direction.
Who knows what might happen if Cox and Smith collide? Even if they don't speak after the play or acknowledge each other after the game, they are, in a way, intertwined. Both are representative of the unnoticed players - the unsung heroes - who have toiled alongside the obvious standouts and helped their teams reach this point.
"If you're a good football team," said Tech head coach Chan Gailey, "you've got maybe 10 to 15 of those kind of `glue guys' who have kept it all together, played their role very well, been good in the locker room, been good in the meetings, those kind of things."
In football, 11 players perform their jobs at the same time on both sides of the ball. A single breakdown, by either the stars or the role players, can lead to the blowup of an offensive play or to the defense surrendering a touchdown.
"Nobody is overlooked among teammates," Smith said. "Everybody accepts their role and recognizes it's a team sport and you need the person beside you (to do his job) in order to achieve great things."
This season, the achievements were the Deacons going 6-2 to win the Atlantic Division and a school-record 10-2 overall, and the Yellow Jackets winning the Coastal Division at 7-1 and going 9-3 overall. Now they meet for a berth in the FedEx Orange Bowl.
Whatever happens, Cox and Smith will play their usual unsung roles. Sometimes they do their jobs so well that coaches take them for granted, at least on the surface.
"Coaches might say `nice block,'" Cox said, "but mostly they expect it out of me and I expect it out of myself."
When asked, however, coaches are happy to praise the overlooked players. Gailey said Cox, who consistently grades out well, is not only tough and a great blocker but also an excellent athlete.
"He's not just an undersized guard in the backfield," Gailey said. "He's got great hands. I think he's the prototypical NFL fullback."
Cox, from Lewisberry, Pa., went to Georgia Tech as a 245-pound tailback but switched to fullback after three days of practice. He was a backup as a true freshman; then started as a sophomore and again this season as a junior.
Because Tech doesn't run the fullback, Cox doesn't have much to show in the way of statistics. He has four career carries, all in the bowl game of his freshman season.
"Every time a game plan comes out on Tuesday, I always look for fullback carries," he said. "My sister always calls me and asks if there are any and every week the answer is no."
Cox does get some touches as a receiver, pulling in 13 passes last year and five more this year, including one for a touchdown against Troy State. The bulk of his work, however, is leading the way for Choice, who has gained 1,204 yards, and protecting quarterback Reggie Ball on passing plays.
"I live through Tashard, by taking pride in his 100-yard games," Cox said. "And if we have a game with no sacks, I take pride in that."
Smith, a fifth-year senior from Black Mountain, N.C., doesn't have many notable stats, either. He had seven career tackles prior to this season and has added nine more, including one sack, so far.
"The stats don't record what you do, keep your gap and spill the ball," Smith said, referring to turning the runner into a different hole so another player can make the tackle. "But you know that you've done it and the linebackers know that you've done it.
"Guys like (linebacker) Jon Abbate and (safety) Josh Gattis, they know they couldn't make a play if we weren't holding the line."
Gattis, a first-team All-ACC selection, concurred.
"That's a tough job, being on the defensive line," Gattis said. "You get dirty but you don't get the recognition. But if he does his job, you know he's putting the team in a position to win the game."
The contributions of Cox don't go unnoticed by more heralded teammates, either.
"I think a lot of us (offensive linemen) have a special place in our hearts for Mike Cox because he's up there doing a lot of the same things we do," said Tech tackle Andrew Gardner, a second-team All-ACC selection.
"He doesn't get a lot of touches. He's just out there trying to drive guys out of the way so Tashard can get his yards and keeping Reggie safe so he can make his passes."
Each player had paid a considerable amount of dues. Cox absorbs contact on every play, unless he's in a pass route. He said his body is fine after the game but feels "horrible" the next day.
"That's part of the price you pay," he said matter-of-factly. .
Smith tore an anterior cruciate ligament near the end of his freshman season and it took two years to fully regain his mobility. He played sparingly but never stopped working and was outstanding in spring practice this year. That earned him a starting position this season.
But his value goes beyond what he does on the field. Wake head coach Jim Grobe said Smith "has been as important to our football team as anybody" because of his work ethic and conduct in the classroom and off the field. He's an important role model to younger players.
"They see an older guy doing things that are unselfish, doing all the things he can to help you win," Grobe said. "Having some guys like Jamil Smith who don't mind not being in the spotlight (is what you want to) give your young guys focus."
Smith said he enjoys being a mentor to younger players like Boo Robinson and John Russell, a pair of defensive tackles who are red-shirt freshmen. Even when he wasn't playing much, Smith soaked up the finer points of the game and his position.
"I tell the younger guys what to expect out there," he said. "I can give them the knowledge that I've gained so it doesn't come as a shock because this game is a lot faster and you have to read things faster."
Smith's influence in the locker room is readily apparent.
"He's probably one of the most caring teammates I have," Gattis said. "He's never going to complain or fuss or argue. He's a guy you have to have on your team - not a guy that you need, but a guy you have to have."
Both players have made peace with the fact that recognition is rarely going to come their way. Cox did have a highlight-reel moment this season when he made a diving, one-handed catch for a touchdown against Troy.
"I like to show my hands as much as possible," Cox said, "and (scoring) was a different feeling, pretty exciting."
After that, however, it was back to blocking, something he said he has learned to embrace.
Smith doesn't have one big play that he remembers above others. He is satisfied that he has contributed every season, even as a member of the scout team when he was being red-shirted.
"If I get a spotlight, that's OK," he said, "and if I don't that's fine also. I'm not one of those guys that has to have the spotlight in order to shine."
Don't expect either of these players to have their name called often Saturday. But if you can, when you see a terrific lead block thrown by Cox or a run stuffed by "Shrek" at the line of scrimmage, give them a moment of appreciation.
Georgia Tech and Wake Forest wouldn't be where they are without them... and a whole lot of other players just like them.
Bill Hass is a long-time observer of ACC sports. His career at the Greensboro News & Record spanned 36 years, from 1969 until his retirement in March, 2006. He is now writing "Plugged in... by Bill Hass" for TheACC.com. His weekly columns will keep fans plugged in to the Atlantic Coast Conference.
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