TORONTO – For Landon Cox, it was one heck of a way to close out the regular season.
For P.J. Fleck, it just affirmed what he already believed.
Cox, a junior wide receiver for Northern Illinois, had statistically the best stretch of his career in the final four games of the regular season. In wins over Eastern Michigan and Ball State and losses at Ohio and Central Michigan, Cox hauled in 23 catches for 314 yards and three touchdowns. Extrapolated out over a full season, Cox would have been just shy of 1,000 receiving yards at that pace.
It's a stretch he hopes to continue Saturday in the International Bowl against South Florida.
"Whenever you get the chance to know that the game has to rely on you and that you're going to have to make plays, you always build yourself up and get ready for that opportunity," Cox said after Wednesday's practice at Rogers Centre. "That's something you wait on and you work for all year."
Numbers aside, Fleck wasn't surprised by Cox's production.
"Landon's one of the best receivers in the conference, but he's never going to get the recognition because we're not a spread offense," he said. "You've got to catch 110 balls on offense just to get noticed.
"But you look at his all-around game; his blocking, his leadership, the way he catches the football, how strong he is mentally and physically. The way he's in and out of cuts at 225 pounds. It's impressive to watch him and he's getting better and better and better as we go."
It also helped the NIU passing game that defenses were loading up to stop the run by putting eight defenders in the box on a more consistent basis, allowing for one-on-one situations. When he was presented with those opportunities, though, Cox took advantage and became a go-to target for quarterbacks Chandler Harnish and DeMarcus Grady.
Cox said his preparation for games has been key, giving credit to Fleck for making practices so challenging that games seemed easy by comparison.
Cox also feels more comfortable this year, believing that former NIU wideouts Britt Davis and Matt Simon were instrumental in laying the groundwork for him entering this season.
"One thing those two guys always did was praise was always good and always stay in good positions on and off the field," Cox said. "That's one thing we took from them. It's not just on the field, it's off the field. You lead by example. Those guys built me up for that role coming into this season."
Fleck pointed out that Cox has done a good job of building himself into a better, more knowledgeable receiver as well, able to teach technique to players like freshmen wideouts Martel Moore and Perez Ashford.
"Once you're able to do that, your wasted movement is gone," Fleck said. "He used to have a lot of wasted movement in his game. You take that wasted movement out of his game, now he's efficient and I think that's what you're seeing on the field, a more efficient Landon Cox."