AMHERST — For four years, a young man from Dorchester experienced one of the pinnacles of college football.
From 2008-11, Mike Cox played at the University of Michigan, the football machine that draws more than 100,000 fans to home games.
“It’s definitely just a big-time football atmosphere,’’ Cox said. “A college town in Ann Arbor. It was a fun school with a great football tradition. It was a good time.’’
Now, Cox is one of the centerpieces of a humbler program.
Cox is a graduate student at UMass, and is first-year coach Charley Molnar’s go-to running back. Cox practices at McGuirk Stadium, a facility where he has not and will never play a single game. For UMass’s last home game, against Ohio on Sept. 29, only 8,321 fans were counted at Gillette Stadium. UMass (0-6, 0-3 Mid-American Conference) has yet to win a game this season, its first year in Football Bowl Subdivision play.
“It’s been a good experience,’’ Cox said of his return to Massachusetts. “Obviously, I didn’t expect for the season to go like this as far as it’s been. But I think we’re getting better as a team. We’re getting better as the season goes on.’’
Molnar has sent 28 true and redshirt freshmen into game action. As Molnar continues his team’s transition, he’s been able to rely on Cox. The 23-year-old is one of the few who understood, prior to this year, how difficult the challenges of FBS competition can be.
The 6-foot-3-inch, 214-pound Cox has started all six games. He has rushed 101 times for 400 yards and scored three TDs, including one in UMass’s last game: a 52-14 loss to Western Michigan on Oct. 6.
Cox’s best game was on Sept. 22. In a 27-16 loss to Miami (Ohio), he had 30 carries for 188 yards and two touchdowns.
On Saturday at Gillette, the Minutemen will look to Cox to help them score their first win of 2012.
“He’s been very dependable,’’ Molnar said after practice on Wednesday. “In fact, we talked about him today in our staff meeting. We know one thing: With Mike Cox, you know what you’re getting every single day in practice and every single day in every game. That’s been really good for us, because he’s not been up and down. He’s been pretty steady the whole time. He had one really good afternoon against Miami. But I’m not sure it wasn’t a product of the way everybody played for us that particular day. He plays hard each and every time out there.’’
The former Avon Old Farms standout has had a career of unfulfilled expectations. Cox considered Boston College, Connecticut, Duke, Maryland, and Penn State before selecting Michigan as his undergraduate proving ground.
Mike Hart, Michigan’s all-time leading rusher (5,040 yards), had concluded his career in 2007. Cox arrived in Ann Arbor in 2008. But under both Rich Rodriguez and Brady Hoke, Cox didn’t receive the reps he had expected.
From 2009-11, Cox appeared in 15 games for the Wolverines. He recorded 19 career carries for 169 yards.
Cox’s best day was on Oct. 17, 2009. The then-redshirt freshman rushed 11 times for 82 yards and two touchdowns in Michigan’s 63-6 win over Delaware State before 106,304 at Michigan Stadium.
“I thought I had an OK career,’’ Cox said of his time in Michigan. “I thought I did OK when I did play. But obviously I wish I got to play more. Get to be the starting running back, which didn’t get to happen. But overall, it was a good experience.’’
Cox and his UMass teammates will enter a dogfight in search of their first win. Bowling Green (4-3, 2-1) is coming off a 37-12 win over Miami (Ohio). The Falcons started the season 1-3.
Against Miami, Bowling Green rushed for 251 yards. Anthon Samuel, the MAC Freshman of the Year in 2011, rumbled for a career-high 171 yards.
The Minutemen will be shorthanded. Prior to the Western Michigan loss, Molnar suspended running back Jamar Smith, offensive lineman Nick Speller, and wide receiver Alan Williams because of academic reasons. Smith will play on Saturday, but Speller and Williams are not expected to dress.
Tight end Rob Blanchflower, linebacker Greg Hilliard, defensive back Ed Saint-Vil, defensive end Galen Clemons, and cornerback Antoine Tharpe will not play because of injuries.
The Minutemen are coming off a bye week. Next Saturday, they will play at Vanderbilt. It will be the first time they play an SEC team.
“It’s always tough going into a bye off a loss. It really is,’’ Molnar said. “It just eats away at you. I wish we could have played last Saturday on a lot of fronts. Nevertheless, it also gives us a chance to clean the slate from the past six weeks and really hit this second season. I think our guys have had good energy, good sense of purpose. They want to win a football game. They’re not out here just practicing to get better. They’re out here to win a football game. I think our guys are locked in. So I’m excited to see how we put it all together on Saturday.’’