LSU Arkanasas Football

LSU linebacker Jabril Cox returns an interception against Arkansas.

The "Memories" feature on Snapchat recalled a timely photo on Aaron Mercadel's cell phone recently. It was a flashback to last spring, a picture of Mercadel hanging out with two former North Dakota State teammates who are projected to be top selections in the NFL draft this week.

There was Trey Lance, the dazzling quarterback who won just about every individual award while leading the Bison to an FCS national championship as a freshman in 2019.

There was Jabril Cox, the playmaking linebacker who left for LSU to prove he could thrive at the game's highest level after three FCS national titles and three All-America selections.

And there was Mercadel, the former NDSU linebacker who is now an assistant coach with the program.

"Look at those two millionaires in the background with me," Mercadel said humbly. "That's pretty cool."

Mercadel's prediction is hardly presumptuous. Lance is widely considered a lock as a Top 10 pick on Thursday, and several draft experts, including ESPN's Todd McShay, predict Cox will be selected as high as the second round on Friday. Tack on NDSU offensive tackle Dillon Radunz, another projected second-round pick, and the trio is continuing one of the most interesting draft legacies of any college program.

There's a lasting question that still exists: All these players... from North Dakota State? But Mercadel said the opposite should be people's expectation now. When a program wins eight of the last nine FCS national championships, it should be sending this many elite players to the NFL.

And it's that stigma Cox tried to escape by playing at LSU as a graduate transfer last season. Take a look at his team-leading 37 solo tackles, the 6½ tackles for loss, the three interceptions, the pick-six against Mississippi State, and it appears he indeed proved himself.

But, in some ways, Cox escaped one stigma only to get wrapped in another. Despite a pandemic shortened 10-game schedule that showcased his skills in the Southeastern Conference, the linebacker was saddled with the unenviable reputation as one of the best players on an LSU defense that gave up the most points and yards per game in school history.

The lack of on-field success didn't generate the same kind of buzz that surrounded former LSU linebackers Devin White and Patrick Queen — first-round picks in each of the last two NFL drafts — and Cox also didn't have the same pre-draft evaluation opportunities to showcase his unique athleticism because of ongoing pandemic precautions.

NFL teams weren't allowed to visit with players and coaches on campuses in the fall, which made Cox's participation in a limited Senior Bowl one of his only face-to-face interactions with potential franchises. The NFL also decided not to host its annual scouting combine in Indianapolis, which forced general managers and scouts to attend university pro days instead.

Then, Cox strained his hamstring while training for LSU's pro day on March 31 and was unable to work out. It was the sort of ill-timed minor injury that could've irritated Cox given his history. An ACL tear during his junior year in high school scared off Division I suitors, and he had to play the final third of his final season with NDSU with a torn labrum.

Instead, Cox immediately announced that he'd be hosting his own workout the week leading up to the draft. The Detroit Lions, according to USA Today, were one of several teams who attended the linebacker's workout on Monday.

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“ ‘Minor setback, major comeback,’ ” Mercadel said Cox told him. "It just shows the type of person he is."

Cox said he was feeling 90% healthy on his livestream of his personal workout at LSU's indoor practice facility. He still produced impressive results: a 4.54-second 40-yard dash and a 34-inch vertical, which both rank within the Top 15 among linebacker results from pro days this year.

Further analytics reveal even more impressive metrics. Relative Athletic Score, which compiles measurements and workout results into a 0-10 score, produced a 9.73 score for Cox that ranked 59th out of 2,153 linebackers from 1987 to 2021. His 40-yard dash and 10-foot-3 broad jump both measured as "elite" grades.

They're the type of metrics that show Cox — like White, like Queen — has the athleticism to be the type of NFL linebacker the new era of offenses demands. Many times, as Cox did at LSU, he'll have to be somewhat of a hybrid: a quasi-nickel safety covering a tight end in the slot; a classic, blitzing linebacker aimed at opposing quarterbacks.

"I think it fits perfect," Cox said of his style on "Move the Sticks." with NFL.com's Bucky Brooks. "It's something that a modern linebacker would need... Just in every asset of the game, as needed, I think that's where the game takes me."

It's the style of play Mercadel remembers at NDSU practices, long before Cox decided he still needed to prove himself in the SEC before leaving for the NFL.

The Jabril Cox vs. Trey Lance matchup was as elite a face-off as there was in any major college football conference. Lance would dash past Cox on a quarterback run. Cox would intercept one of Lance's passes.

Interceptions truly roiled Lance, Mercadel said, and after "the defense kept him humble in practice," the quarterback didn't throw a single interception during an undefeated 2019 season in which Lance won both the FCS Walter Payton Award (top offensive player) and Jerry Rice Award (top freshman), the first player to win both in the same season.

It's pictures like the Snapchat memory that remind Mercadel that Cox will indeed find a way to be successful in the NFL. Even after leaving a championship FCS program for the SEC. Even after a pandemic-riddled college football season on a struggling LSU defense. Even after having to hold his own pro day workout.

"He's always bet on himself," Mercadel said.  "Even when others haven't. He's continuing to bet on himself, and I couldn't be more proud of him."

Email Brooks Kubena at bkubena@theadvocate.com.