Central High School running backs coach Jamal Galato first watched Lavontae Cox tote the football when Cox was in eighth grade, playing at Oxford Community Center.
Cox immediately separated himself from his peers.
“He was running the ball and had a couple of cuts, in eighth grade. That amazed me,” Gelato said. “But I was like, ‘OK, let me see it in high school.’ ”
And, sure enough, the following year Cox impressed in practices as a freshman. But despite Gelato’s best lobbying, Cox wasn’t a factor in the varsity backfield.
But that changed last fall, finally, after injuries pushed Cox into a prominent role, and the tailback took off. Highlighted by a 176-yard outburst in Central’s 20-7 section semifinal upset of Highland Park, Cox ran for nearly 1,000 yards, and added 300 more receiving, last season to help spark the Minutemen’s late-season surge into a section final.
“They kept telling me, ‘Coach, you’ve got to look at this young kid. You’ve gotta look at the young kid,’ ” Central coach Scott Howell said. “By the end of the year, he’s got 900 yards, averaging six yards a carry. He made all the difference in the world.”
For years, Central’s offense has been predicated on speed. The Minutemen want to get to the outside and run past you. But Cox’s emergence has added a new layer to the attack.
“Now, all of a sudden to have a legitimate threat to run in between the tackles,” Howell said. “It just opens everything else up.”
And sets a firm tone. Central’s offensive line returns three players from last year’s strong unit, led by senior guard Alex Dreher, an all-district performer in 2022. Dreher noted Central’s front prefers to play “smash-mouth football.” And, despite what his 5-foot-8 frame might suggest, Cox is a smash-mouth back.
“I’m not finna dance and wait around for you to try to tackle me. I’m going straight through you. I’m running hard,” Cox said. “I’ve always been a competitive person, ever since I was young. That’s just my style. My dad, he always tells me to run hard. I just try to do my best and run as hard and as fast as I can.”
Cox’s goal is to gain five-plus yards every single time he carries the ball. His line loves him for his mentality.
“He’s not going to be the guy who’s going to bounce it outside and get hit by the edge for a loss of two,” Dreher said. “He’s the type of guy that’s going to put his head down, put his legs into the ground and drive for seven yards a carry.”
Cox noted he gained confidence as the season wore on last fall and he became accustomed to the varsity game. The plan is to start the season — which opens Friday at Bloomington Kennedy — with the same mindset he utilized at the conclusion of the last campaign.
Cox certainly has the abilities to flourish. Galato touted the back’s ability to run with vision, shiftiness and violence. Those were all traits Cox possessed before a transformative offseason.
“He was just a natural athlete, for sure. Coming into the weight room, you could tell he’s just really explosive, super strong,” Dreher said. “And he has moved up weights faster than pretty much anyone else in there.”
Dreher said Cox started the offseason squatting 225 pounds for maybe three reps. Now, he’s up around 385 pounds on the rack.
“Now he’s been in the program for a year straight, just working his tail off, and he’s going to be phenomenal,” Dreher said.
The expectations around Central are that high for the entire team. Cox said he wants to clear 1,000 yards rushing in his junior season. His team goal is for the Minutemen to go undefeated. Lofty, for sure. But the Minutemen don’t find that to be unreasonable. They have size up front and talent in the backfield. Cox is joined by quarterback Allan Lankfard Jr., an explosive athlete who missed much of last season due to injury.
There’s a lot to like about this Central team, which is looking to exceed the five-win plateau for the first time since 2015.
“This is a season that we want to go undefeated and prove to people that we’re Central Football. Smash-mouth football, we’re tough up front, and you don’t want to play us by the fourth quarter,” Dreher said. “That’s what we want to establish. We’re going to be tougher than you in the fourth quarter. So kind of us wanting to show the world that we’ve got more left, and you guys haven’t seen what we have to offer. We’re kind of out there to prove them wrong, and we’re going to show up and show them what we have left. And we’re really excited for it.”
The Minutemen are planning to build upon the wave of momentum established at the end of last season, primarily riding the strength of Cox’s legs.
“I think they feed off of him. I think that’s what happened last year, especially in our games later on with that little run through the playoffs,” Howell said. “We just fed off of it. After awhile, it’s like, ‘Give him the ball, and just follow.’
“I think he’s our kickstarter, our rocket,” Galato said. “Whatever you wanna call it at this point, he’s our guy.”