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UND offensive lineman Mat Cox reclaiming his spot

Mat Cox

GRAND FORKS — As University of North Dakota football practice ended earlier this week, most of the 100-some players ran off the field at the High Performance Center to the locker rooms at Memorial Stadium.

The offensive linemen were especially gassed after running sprints after practice.

Right tackle Mat Cox, though, was in his stance at the 50-yard line. He was taking in extra work with nose guard Tank Harris.

"Look at Cox right now," UND offensive line coach Luke Knauf said from across the field. "That's him."

That extra work and preparation have helped Cox recover from a season-ending knee injury in 2016, back to the starting lineup as the 2017 season approaches.

"He's done some good things, knocking off the rust," Knauf said. "It's a process. He's working hard in the weight room. He's coming around."

Cox, a 6-foot-5, 300-pound Olympia, Wash., native, suffered a season-ending knee injury in his seventh career start. In Week 4 of 2016 against Montana State in Bozeman, a run play came sweeping by Cox and he had his leg rolled up into.

Cox said the pain was initially intense but after feeling okay on the sidelines, he went back in to test his knee for the next drive. He only lasted one play.

"As soon as I got in my stance, I thought 'this isn't going to go well,' " Cox said.

He spent the rest of the season in crutches on the sideline.

While UND went on to win the Big Sky Conference championship and appear in the program's first FCS playoff game, Cox was forced to watch the team from his apartment when it was on the road.

"Practices weren't bad because I still got to interact with the guys and try to help coach them up," Cox said. "Gameday was rough. Seeing everyone run out, and I'm out there on crutches. That's something I wouldn't wish on anybody."

The return of Cox has been important for the offensive line, which graduated standout Michael Coe. And former starter Elijah Grady, who returned to the program this summer after a year away, left the team again right before fall camp.

"The knee feels great," Cox said. "There's no pain at all."

He has also developed into an important leader for the Fighting Hawks. The fifth-year senior, who came to campus as a defensive lineman recruited by the outgoing staff of Chris Mussman, has seen the team's ups and downs.

"He's very important as the leader of our group," Knauf said. "Everyone feeds off him and his energy."