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North Myrtle Beach’s T.J. Cox talks to the offense as the Chiefs beat cross-county rival Myrtle Beach 37-10 to capture the Lower State Championships on Friday, Nov. 28, 2020. The Chiefs will go on to play in the state championship game Saturday in Columbia. Photo by Janet Morgan/janet.morgan@myhorrynews.com

T.J. Cox knew his teammates had his back.

Likewise, they knew he had theirs.

The North Myrtle Beach linebacker was part of the area’s best defense. There were a handful of seniors bound for the college ranks and at least a couple more juniors on that same path. And, yet, when it came to making it all work, Cox may very well have been the glue that held it all together. 

“That’s a great way to put it,” fourth-year coach Matt Reel said. “We don’t play a whole lot of teams who play the game like we do where there are two tight ends and running down hill. They’re more spread out. With him being there, we can go with five guys in the box and it allows our other guys to go and play. He takes care of a lot of that. … He’s very much been the equalizer.”

Cox, a 5-foot-10, 180-pound middle linebacker, crafted himself as a team-first attacker instead of one simply who was going to blindly run after the ball. He still tied for the team lead in tackles with 43.5, but he also chipped in with a little bit of everything else.

There were 5.5 tackles for loss, a sack, an interception, two pass break-ups, two quarterback hurries, two forced fumbles and a fumble recovery.

He could blitz or drop back into coverage, crash into a ball carrier or chase down a scrambling quarterback. So, while there were plenty of standouts, the fact that the Chiefs gave up an average of 12.7 points per game while running roughshod through the best region in the state and then kept it going in the playoffs to reach the school’s first-ever championship game had quite a bit to do with Cox.

“I just count on my defense and they count on me,” Cox said. “When things go wrong, we just go to the next play. That’s where everything starts in the process. When we made a mistake or the offense scored and everyone put their head down, we’d have to keep them up. Most teams put their heads down because they made a mistake.”

Until the state title loss against A.C. Flora, there weren’t many to count.

During the first nine games — six in the regular season and three in the playoffs — the Chiefs’ defense allowed just 12 total touchdowns. It will be difficult to replicate that type of efficiency next fall after six of the starters move on.

However, Reel is confident that having several of those faces back — not to mention Cox in uniform as a third-year starter — will go a long way. After all, it was only 18 months ago that the then-freshman was told it was time to cut his teeth and proved he could handle the load.

“We didn’t even know last year if he was going to be a varsity player. We knew what we wanted to do defensively, but we didn’t know if he could do it,” Reel said. “Where he started and where he is at the end of this year, it has been awesome watching him grow and learn and progress.”

MYHORRYNEWS.COM ALL-COUNTY DEFENSIVE  FOOTBALL TEAM

PLAYER OF THE YEAR

T.J. Cox

School | North Myrtle Beach 

Position | Linebacker

Grade | Junior

Year in review | Helped lead a dominant Chiefs team to its first state championship appearance by leading the squad in tackles (43.5). Added 5.5 tackles for loss, 1.5 sacks, an interception, two pass break-ups, two forced fumbles and a fumble recovery.

Chase Simmons

School | North Myrtle Beach

Position | Defensive line

Grade | Senior

Year in review | Coastal Carolina commit finished his best season with the Chiefs with 21.5 tackles, nine tackles for loss, three sacks, a forced fumble and a pass break-up. 

Tyrone Miles

School | Myrtle Beach

Position | Defensive line

Grade | Senior 

Year in review | Seahawks’ lineman had 43.5 tackles, 16 tackles for loss, three sacks and a forced fumble in 10 games from his spot along the interior.

Trey Baker

School | North Myrtle Beach

Position | Defensive line

Grade | Senior

Year in review | Put up 34.5 tackles, 12.5 tackles for loss and 8.5 sacks for a Chiefs’ defense that advanced to the Class 4A state championship game. 

Jonah Freshley

School | Conway

Position | Defensive line

Grade | Junior

Year in review | The combo end/tackle was the best Tiger defender all season, finishing the year with 43.5 tackles, 10 tackles for loss and a pass break-up.

Latrell Pitts

School | Carolina Forest

Position | Linebacker

Grade | Senior

Year in review | The Panthers’ leading tackler (80) was instrumental in a defense that allowed 21 points or fewer to five of its nine opponents this fall. 

Billy Barlow

School | North Myrtle Beach

Position | Linebacker

Grade | Senior 

Year in review | Clemson baseball signee had 28.5 tackles, seven tackles for loss, two quarterback hurries, two sacks and a pass break-up during the Chiefs’ run to the title game.

Cameron Faircloth

School | Loris

Position | Linebacker

Grade | Sophomore

Year in review | In just five games this year, Loris’ top tackler finished with 49 stops and a defensive score in helping the Lions to a top-three Region VII-3A finish.

Adam Janack

School | Carolina Forest

Position | Defensive back

Grade | Senior

Year in review | Finished his career with a school-record 21 interceptions after adding six more this fall to go along with 34 tackles in nine games. 

Chandler McCall

School | North Myrtle Beach

Position | Defensive back

Grade | Junior

Year in review | Chiefs’ safety tied for the team lead in tackles (43.5) and led North Myrtle Beach with four interceptions to go along with a forced fumble and a recovery.

Connor Meehan

School | Carolina Forest

Position | Defensive back

Grade | Senior

Year in review | Free-roaming safety helped propel the Panthers to a second-place Region VI-5A finish by putting up 61 total tackles and snagging an interception.

Zane Smith

School | North Myrtle Beach

Position | Punter

Grade | Senior

Year in review | Three-year lockdown player at the position averaged 37.9 yards on 34 punts this fall, including nine that pinned opponents inside their own 20-yard line.

Contact Charles D. Perry at 843-488-7236

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