When Michael Cox broke off runs of 11 and 12 yards in the same fourth-quarter series against the Steelers last week, safety Stevie Brown turned to Victor Cruz on the sideline.
"He learned that at Michigan," Brown said, proud of his alma mater and another Wolverine making his mark in the NFL with physical play.
Two snaps later, when Cox fumbled a direct snap and had to flop on it to recover the football, Brown again turned to Cruz. "He learned that at UMass," he said, tweaking Cruz's school.
There's a little bit of everything in Cox's background, and the seventh-round pick is using as much of it as he can to make the Giants this summer.
When people see that he comes from the University of Massachusetts, they assume he's a small-school guy with a chip on his shoulder. But Cox once was a big-time recruit at one of the nation's biggest-time programs, playing his first three years at Michigan before graduating early and transferring to his home state. That gives him some bona fides most other FCS players lack. "I consider myself from both," Cox said, happy to share the two backgrounds.
Cox never found his footing at Michigan. He played in only 15 games there and ran for 169 yards and two touchdowns on 19 carries. Most of those numbers and both of those scores came in a game against Delaware State as a redshirt freshman.
He always harbored dreams of making it to the NFL, and it became clear that he was not going to get there by way of the bench in Ann Arbor.
"I talked to my family about it and I talked to my coach and it seemed like a good decision to make that move," Cox said of transferring for his senior season. "I loved Michigan and I did want to stay. But trying to get to the NFL, I needed more game film, so I thought my best opportunity was at UMass."
Turned out he was right. He ran for 715 yards and five touchdowns on 198 carries as the starting running back for the Minutemen last year, enough to catch the eye of Giants scouts.
"I knew some way I was going to figure it out," he said of his end-around from the Blue and Maize to Big Blue. "I thought at Michigan I was going to, but when that didn't work out, I was like, 'I'll make my path some other way.' "
Now he's with the Giants and was their leading rusher in the preseason opener. He also was the starting kickoff returner, although he didn't get a chance to take any out of the end zone. He'll get a chance to try both roles Sunday night against the Colts and has a good chance to be the team's third-string running back this season behind David Wilson and Andre Brown.
If his name does appear on the Giants' 53-man roster this year, though, he will be listed as having played at Massachusetts -- and most will assume he's another player overlooked by the top college programs.
"Where you came from and what you did in the past don't matter once you get to this level," Wilson noted. "It's about producing here."
Cox hopes he can do just that after taking one step backward to move two steps forward, showing the patience of a back who must wait for the hole to open in front of him.
"He has all the physical tools. He always had all the physical tools," said Stevie Brown, a teammate for one year in college. "I tell people all the time, 'Cox is going to surprise a lot of people.' Whenever Cox gets the ball, he's going to be ready."