LAWRENCE — The story begins with the hair, these long, twisting strands of caramel-colored dreadlocks. It’s taken three years for KU junior running back Taylor Cox to mold, twirl and handcraft them into perfection, and they are not going anywhere.
“They take a while to grow,” Cox says. “You gotta twist the roots, and (there is) all types of maintenance.”
The tresses have been there for three of the most frustrating, demanding and rewarding years of Cox’s life, and each length comes with a story.
They are now probably longer than 6 inches, and the first thing you notice when you talk to Cox, fresh off a 100-yard rushing day last Saturday in his Jayhawk debut against South Dakota State.
But three years ago, when the strands were just half-inch baby dreads, Cox was a senior at Jackson High School in the Seattle area. He was one of the best running backs in the area, drawing interest from a few Pac-10 schools, but his best option turned out to be Eastern Washington. He committed but could never get academically qualified.
So Cox headed south, to a little outpost near the California-Oregon Border. The town was called Weed, Calif., a lumber town in the shadow of Mount Shasta. And the school was College of The Siskiyous, a junior college where they certainly have football — but it’s not always guaranteed if major schools are watching.
“Weed, California,” says KU coach Charlie Weis. “I’m telling you what … go on navigation and see if you can find it. It’s a tough place to find.”
But for Cox, the locale just seemed to suit him. He’s a laid-back person by nature. Maybe it’s how his mother, McCall, raised him. And maybe it’s just something about growing up in the Pacific Northwest.
“I try not to let much faze me,” Cox says, “And just kind of go with the flow.”
In Weed, he could walk outside and look at the mountains. He could be by himself and think about the future. He could focus on football with few distractions.
“It’s definitely a peaceful place where you can kind of gather your thoughts,” Cox says.
So who knows how many people were watching? But it didn’t matter much to Cox. As a juco freshman, he rushed for 1,237 yards and 14 touchdowns in 212 carries. Last season, he was even better, running for 1,507 yards and 14 touchdowns in just 10 games.
Still, the big schools mostly stayed away. Until one day in January, when Cox received a phone call from Weis, who wanted Cox to visit Lawrence. He had heard about the running back that was tearing up the competition in some remote town in California, and he was certainly interested.
“When you study tape, it doesn’t lie,” Weis says now. “What a good player is supposed to do against players that aren’t as good — they’re supposed to dominate. Alls they can do is dominate. And that’s what he did.”
Cox commited to KU on his official visit, and Weis returned the favor by making a trip out to Weed.
“It made it worth it,” Cox says. “I had hard times at junior college, but I don’t regret it at all.”
If the KU staff thought it was getting a running back with potential, they were even more sure of their new offensive weapon when Cox arrived on campus. Cox could run with power and speed, and with incumbent starter junior James Sims suspended for the first three games of the year, Cox would be needed right away.
“We lucked out,” says running-backs coach Reggie Mitchell.
Cox backed up everything last weekend, running over the South Dakota State defense for 121 yards in just 16 carries. And when Weis went back and watched the game film, there was one play in particular that stood out.
“He just lowered his shoulder and basically put the guy right on his back,” Weis said. “When a guy has enough wiggle and shake and bake to make people miss but is physical enough to run people over like we saw… that’s a good sign.”
These days, Cox says he’s comfortable in Lawrence. The people are laid-back. His mom and siblings were in town for the opener. He’s bonded quickly with his teammates.
For a moment Tuesday, after the Jayhawks concluded practice, Cox thumbed at his dreadlocks and talked about his first months on campus. No, he says, the dreadlocks aren’t going anywhere.
“I’m thinking about cutting them after college,” Cox says, “but as long as I’m here, I think I’ll have them.”
Tough grade — In the days after Kansas’ 31-17 victory over South Dakota State in the season opener, KU coach Charlie Weis took first-year quarterback Dayne Crist through the usual postgame routine. It starts, Weis says, with reviewing every single play of the game and assigning pluses and minuses to each play.
And after Crist’s performance in his KU debut — 17 of 36 for 169 yards passing — Weis evaluated his quarterback’s play with cold and calculated frankness.
“No one gets graded harder than the quarterback,” Weis said Tuesday during his weekly press conference. “So, I think that his parents would not have been happy if he brought that grade home.”
Crist, meanwhile, was just as hard on himself. The offense, he said, must be more efficient.
“At the end of the day, I’m all about accountability,” Crist said. “And I hold myself accountable for my play. But it’s encouraging that this group of receivers that we have, they’re always trying to get better and improve.”
Weis, however, said Crist measured up in three important categories. After nearly a calendar year on the sideline, Crist didn’t play scared, stayed calm under pressure, and kept his composure when things went sour.
“I can correct the other things,” Weis said. “I can create better chemistry in the passing game. It’s a combination of him and the skills guys. But I can’t do it if he’s looking at the rush. I can’t do it if he’s nervous. I can’t do it if he loses his composure. And he passed all those with flying colors.”
Perfect world —Weis called Saturday’s win “coaching utopia” because he believes players are generally more receptive to coaching and criticism after a victory. On Tuesday, Weis revealed one of his favorite teaching moments from after the opening victory.
“After every game, I’ll watch about 20 plays — 10 good ones and 10 bad ones. And after a win, I’ll always show the bad ones first. (I’ll) say, ‘Yeah, you think you’re good? Well, let’s watch this pile of crap.’ ”
Roster updates — Senior linebacker Anthony McDonald didn’t appear on the weekly depth chart for the second straight week. Weis has said that McDonald, who battled injuries during four years at Notre Dame, will play when he’s fully healthy. McDonald did appear to be going close to full speed on Tuesday during warmups and footwork drills at the beginning of practice.… Weis sidestepped a question about incoming juco defensive lineman Ty McKinney, who is expected to finally arrive on campus Friday. “What’s today?” Weis said. “We’re talking about Rice.”
Blocked — Rice junior linebacker Cameron Nwosu made waves last week when he set an NCAA-record with three blocked extra points in the Owls’ loss against UCLA. In fact, all three blocks came in the first half. After film inspection, Weis didn’t sound too concerned about Nwosu’s presence.
“Honestly, I think the balls were all kicked low,” Weis said. “Now, the kid made the play in all three cases.”