SALT LAKE CITY — Here's a quiz for you Ute fans or any close followers of college football.

Who was the sacks leader for last year's 10-3 Utah football team?

Let's see, it must have been Koa Misi, the all-Mountain West Conference defensive end, who took his talents to the NFL.

Nope.

Well, then it had to be the other starting end, Derrick Shelby,

Wrong.

Then how about linebackers Stevenson Sylvester or Mike Wright, the two team leaders in tackles, or starting tackle Sealver Siliga?

No, no and no.

The Ute sacks leader was actually a walk-on player who only started three games all season and wasn't even on scholarship at the time.

You mean Christian Cox? Of course.

Cox, who had 5.5 sacks last year despite flying a bit under the radar, is poised to be one of the key players for an inexperienced but talented Utah defense this year. He was recently selected as one of four team co-captains in a vote of the players and is slated to start at one of the defensive end positions.

"There is more of a comfort level this year," said Cox. "My speed is up, my strength is up, my fat is down and I feel my knowledge of the 'D' is very good."

The 24-year-old Cox is a former Bountiful High standout who was lightly recruited out of high school and headed down to Southern Utah to play for Gary Andersen. He went on an LDS mission to Brazil and then followed in the footsteps of former SUU players Wright and Bradon Godfrey and joined the Utah football team.

Growing up, Cox had been a big fan of the San Francisco 49ers and early on was a BYU fan.

"I was a big Steve Young fan," he said. "Also, my cousin, Matt Cox, played for BYU with Aaron Roderick and Kalani Sitake back in '97 and (Matt) was the starting right guard."

However, in high school he started "disliking" BYU soon after attending one of their summer camps. After his mission, he e-mailed Roderick, who had been at SUU and was now at Utah, and was invited to walk on to the Utes' team.

"When I came here and met coach Whit (Kyle Whittingham) and shook his hand, I knew this was where I wanted to be," he said.

Cox redshirted in 2007 and played in just four games in 2008. Last year, he started out low on the depth chart, but played more as the season went along and took over for Shelby when Shelby went down with a knee injury in the third-to-last game against TCU.

Cox started the final two regular-season games against San Diego State and BYU, getting sacks in each game and also started the bowl game against Cal.

"The funny thing is, I didn't even know I led the team in sacks," Cox said. "It was the first of January and I was awarded a scholarship at a team meeting and coach Whit said, 'Do you know who led the team in sacks last year? It was this guy."'

Ask Cox if he cares that he may not get the proper attention for his accomplishments on the field and he says, "It doesn't bother me. I've always been the underdog, I guess. But I know what I'm capable of."

Coming into this year, the 6-foot-1, 250-pound Cox was still an underdog, listed as a backup to Shelby at left end, with Junior Tui'one at the right end. However, he took over as No. 1 when Shelby was injured and, now that Shelby is back, Cox is listed as the starter at right end.

Regardless of any depth charts, Cox says he, Shelby and Junior Tui'one will all see plenty of action at the defensive end spots along with freshman Joe Kruger.

"Jumper (Tui'one) and Shelby and I are best friends," Cox said. "We'll probably all rotate this season, so it doesn't matter who starts."

Defensive line coach John Pease is pleased with a defensive line that is strong at every position on the two-deep chart. He calls Cox "very good" and says his success comes from more than just size and talent.

"He's so smart," Pease says. "He is a big-engine kid and is going to make plays just on great effort and being smart. He's the consummate football player in that way."

Cox says relying on his smarts is a big factor in getting quarterback sacks.

"You have to know the situations, when you can rush and when you can't. You have to know your opponent," he says. "If you ask coach Andersen, he'll tell you I was a horrible pass rusher three years ago. Coach Pease has really taught me how to position myself to manipulate (the opponent) to make plays."

With Cox, Shelby, Tui'one and Joe Kruger at the ends and Siliga, Dave Kruger, James Aiono and Nelie A'asa in the middle, the defensive line could be one of the strengths of the Utah team this fall.

"I know what our defense is capable of," Cox said. "We're going to do some good things this year."

e-mail: sor@desnews.com