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October 18, 2012

Fox thinks outside the box

It wasn’t that he was soft. He just wasn’t accustomed to playing in the more violent world of an inside linebacker.

It wasn’t that he didn’t understand. He just didn’t have much playing time under his belt.

It wasn’t that he wasn’t good enough to play all the time. He just had a physical teammate playing the same position.

Meet Dan Fox, the 2012 version. The 2011 version wasn’t bad; this one’s just better.

“You see Dan Fox play now and he doesn’t hesitate,” said Mike linebacker Manti Te’o. “He’s a lot more confident in his ability to make plays. He’s a lot more comfortable in the scheme. He knows what to do. He knows what the guy next to him is doing, and he knows where I’m going to be.

“When you know that, when you know where your teammates will be, it allows you to play a lot faster. Combine that with confidence and you’ll get Dan Fox’s progression throughout his career.”

Although tackle numbers can be a bit misleading as to the effectiveness of a defensive player, there’s little doubt that Fox - the 6-foot-3, 240-pound senior from Rocky River, Ohio - is around the football a whole lot more than he was a year ago when he was credited with 48 stops in 13 starting assignments.

Sharing time with classmate Carlo Calabrese, as he is this year, Fox was sixth on the squad in stops, which is low for a Will linebacker, even with a human vacuum cleaner like Te’o next to you. Through six games this season, Fox already has 31 stops, which ranks third on the defense behind Te’o (59) and safety Zeke Motta (37).

“That just comes with experience and getting more reps under my belt and Coach (Bob) Diaco explaining the small nuances that come with playing linebacker that maybe I wouldn’t have picked up last year,” said Fox of his improved aggressiveness to the football. “I’m definitely moving my game forward. I can play a lot faster. I can make the reads a lot quicker.

“It just brings a whole new level of confidence to my game. I can just go play. There’s not the sense of anxiety like, ‘What are they going to do?’ I watch a lot more film and I understand what they’re going to do. Obviously, if they break profile, it’s different. But it just brings a whole new confidence to my game.”

It’s pretty obvious to Brian Kelly as well.

“He’s a very physical player, although I wouldn’t say he wasn’t physical last year,” Kelly said. “Just overall knowledge of the position. The Will linebacker position for him was something new. I thought he adapted very well last year. There were times that we thought he was clearly the No. 1 player at that position. Now Carlo obviously has had a really good year and those guys are sharing time.”

Fox came out of St. Ignatius High School projected as an outside linebacker. That’s where Charlie Weis and his staff aligned him during his freshman season when he preserved a year of eligibility. He continued to work at outside linebacker upon the arrival of the Kelly regime, but then shifted inside. The move wasn’t easy.

“(Physicality) was something that I had to learn,” Fox said. “Not that I wasn’t physical. It was just something different from high school because I was outside in space a little more and not used to being in with the linemen so much. But I got used to it and Coach Diaco did a great job helping me out with that.”

Now, not only is Fox mixing it up inside, but he’s also adapting in pass coverage on a new level.

“Stanford had a dig behind him and he got fished out by the underneath defender,” Kelly said. “He immediately came off the field and said, ‘I can’t believe I got fished out on that play!’

“You hear things like that and you go, ‘This guy really gets it and understands.’ So the base knowledge has helped. He hasn’t been banged up. He had that shoulder and it really hampered him at times. Physically, he’s in a much better place.”

It doesn’t hurt to have a player of Te’o’s caliber next to you either.

“He’s the best player I’ve ever played with,” said Fox of Te’o. “I can see it every time I watch the film because when I’m in there, I don’t really notice what he’s doing. I know he’s making a play, but when I watch the film, it’s like, ‘Wow!’”

The respect is mutual from Te’o.

“Dan is somebody who consistently works hard,” Te’o said. “He doesn’t like to make a mistake. He’s always trying to get better.

“With him and Carlo there - two really good linebackers who are competing every day and making each other better - that Will position is a lot better than where it was last year. It’s going to continue to get better because we have two guys who really love to play this game.”

With experience comes confidence. With confidence comes aggressiveness. With experience and confidence comes a love for the game.

“I go out to practice every day and I’m excited to be there,” Fox said. “Coach Diaco does a great job making sure we all have the energy we need. It’s just an awesome feeling when I go out to practice every day. It’s just a lot of fun.”

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