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October 12, 2017

Rakim Cox gets his eyes opened by the CFL

Rakim Cox has learned his lesson.

In late September, the 26-year-old product of San Diego agreed to join the CFL’s Saskatchewan Roughriders after making NFL stops over the previous three seasons with the Minnesota Vikings, Miami Dolphins and Carolina Panthers.

Like many former NFL players who come north, Cox wasn’t sure what to expect from the CFL — except that he didn’t think it would be as challenging as its American cousin.

He knows better now.

“When you’ve been (in the NFL) and you’ve seen the attention you get in America and the cheques you get there, it’s great, it’s wonderful and you can’t knock it,” Cox began. “When you come here and it’s not like that but on the field the play is just as intense, then you’ve got to respect it.

“I tip my hat … It’s actually pretty tough. I’ve actually got a lot more respect for this league than I had before.”

Cox is set to play the second game of his young CFL career Friday, when the Roughriders entertain the Ottawa Redblacks at Mosaic Stadium (8 p.m., CKRM, TSN). He made his debut Saturday, recording two tackles, a tackle for loss and a quarterback pressure in Saskatchewan’s 27-24 victory over the host Toronto Argonauts.

The 6-foot-4, 260-pounder was a defensive end during his college days at Villanova and in the NFL, but the Roughriders are deploying him at defensive tackle. That resulted in some teaching moments for him in Toronto.

“He’s learning to play against a double team,” Saskatchewan head coach-GM Chris Jones said. “He played a little bit high last week, but certainly he made a couple of plays that were noticeable.”

“Week 1 was a little tough, being my first time here and playing in a game for the first time in over a year,” Cox added. “The yard off the ball, learning the movements, trying to learn a full playbook in a week — it’s tough coming in late in the season, but I’m getting it together.

“I’ve got a lot of guys on the D-line helping me play by play and in extra meetings after practice, so I’m starting to get a little bit more comfortable. Everything is starting to flow together and I’m excited for this game.”

Cox redshirted as a freshman at Villanova in 2009, but then started 47 games over the next four seasons. A two-time first-team conference all-star, Cox finished his Wildcats career with 105 tackles, 33.5 tackles for losses, 18 sacks, 14 pass knockdowns, four forced fumbles and two interceptions.

He wasn’t selected in the 2014 NFL draft, but signed as an undrafted free agent with Minnesota in May of that year. He was waived by the Vikings in early August and signed with Miami later that month, but was released during the pre-season.

Cox signed with Carolina in May of 2015 and spent the regular season and post-season on the Panthers’ practice squad. The following season, he was placed on injured reserve by Carolina with a herniated disc in his lower back in late August and then waived in early September.

He returned to San Diego and resumed training, but he also started moving on with his life.

He got involved with a couple of non-profit organizations, including a gym that provides athletic services for underprivileged kids in the neighbourhood in which Cox grew up. Another focus was a youth football league, the directors of which were all former NCAA or NFL players.

Those endeavours kept Cox occupied — until his agent called and said the Roughriders were interested. After a year out of football, Cox decided to give it another shot.

“It came down to if I loved the game or not,” he said. “I had an unfortunate situation in Carolina; I feel like I should still be there, but I can’t control that. I still have the heart and athleticism to play football. I’m only 26 years old, so I have a lot of football left as long as I’m healthy. I wanted to chase the dream still.

“I know (the work in San Diego) will always be there. That’s kind of like my brand back home and it’ll be there until I’m done with football. If I can play football and make an impact for a short term — meaning four, five, six years as opposed to my whole life — it’s OK for me to leave (the organizations) for now.”

The Roughriders announced Cox’s signing on Sept. 26 and they took him on their road trip to Ontario. When defensive end A.C. Leonard was put on the injured list after Saskatchewan’s game against the host Redblacks on Sept. 29, Cox was activated to take that roster spot for Saturday’s game in Toronto.

He’ll play again Friday, filling a spot that has been like a revolving door for the Roughriders. Saskatchewan has deployed internationals like Zach Minter, Nick James, Royce LaFrance and T.J. Barnes in the middle of its defensive line, but injuries and ineffective play have forced changes.

Cox hopes he can do the job.

He admitted he has to get used to the climate — Philadelphia is the coldest place he ever played previously, so Saskatchewan will be an eye-opener — and he’s still getting acclimated to life in the CFL.

“I’m only on Week 2, so I’ve got a lot to learn,” Cox said. “I’m still learning the playbook. I’m still learning the techniques the coaches are teaching. I’m still learning everything. Hopefully in the coming weeks I can adjust, learn and make a huge impact in this league — which I think I’m capable of doing.”