As he sat out the 2011 NFL season, Perrish Cox became a 49ers fan from afar.
On Sundays, he would be on his couch at home and watching San Francisco's dominant defense, thanks to a couple of former ties with the team. The talented cornerback forged a strong relationship with defensive backs Ed Donatell during their time together in 2010 and also wanted to keep tabs on his former Oklahoma State teammate Kendall Hunter.
In his first game action in roughly 18 months, Cox got a heavy dose of playing time with the second unit in Friday night's preseason opener against Minnesota. Coordinator Vic Fangio used Cox in the slot at nickel and on the outside as a traditional cornerback, where he nabbed a diving interception in the game's final minutes.
After watching himself on film, Cox said he sees room to grow in his role on the defense.
"I think I had a good game," Cox said. "It could have been better in all kinds of ways, but I think it's a push forward for me, especially for it being my first game since being away for a full year. It's going pretty good."
Fangio has described the nickel position in his system as something of a hybrid between a linebacker and a defensive back. Playing inside, Cox has to be aware of more factors like motion and knowing how to line up correctly with his teammates.
From Fangio's comments, it sounds like Cox has been able to carve out a role with the defensive unit heading into 2012.
"He's doing well at nickel, he's doing well at corner," Fangio said. "He's going to factor into our plan somehow, some way."
As he sat on the sidelines for 2011, Cox still kept in contact with Donatell, maintaining a personal relationship that was a huge factor in his recruitment to the 49ers. During his time in San Francisco, Cox has already noticed the different coaching styles presented by Fangio and Donatell.
"Coach Vic – he's more of a chill type," Cox said. "Once you get into the meeting room, he'll help you out with what you need to do and this and that. Coach Donatell – he's the same coach I had with the Broncos. He's tough, he's always after you out there and basically staying on us to make sure we've got everything right."
Cox's teammates have also played an instrumental in role in his mental development since joining the 49ers. Pro Bowl cornerback Carlos Rogers, who was the primary nickel back for Fangio in 2011, has become a valuable teacher for Cox as he tries to learn the new position.
"Carlos Rogers – he's a big help in the meeting room," Cox said. "Everything I have a question about, if I don't go to coach Ed for it, I go to Carlos. He's coming off a Pro Bowl season, so he's been a great help to me."
But it's not just the defensive backs who have been able to help Cox make the transition. Chemistry with the linebackers is key when defending slot receivers, so Cox has already developed a rapport with second-string linebacker Larry Grant, along with All-Pros Joe Staley and NaVorro Bowman.
When discussing his group of cornerbacks heading into 2012, Fangio noted it's one of the deepest positions on the roster. Last year's starters, Rogers and Tarell Brown, return alongside key 2011 backups Chris Culliver and Tramaine Brock.
Culliver has had a notable training camp full of interceptions and is expected to be the team's third cornerback on the depth chart, but Fangio said the second-year player is currently being pushed by others on the roster like Brock.
"Right now I just feel good that we've got five corners there that we can feel confident about playing in the game," Fangio said. "Wish we had that depth at all our positions, but that's probably a little bit unrealistic."
That's not to say Fangio is content with his secondary. Heading into Friday night's preseason opener vs. the Minnesota Vikings, Fangio said he had a gut feeling the defense might underperform. On the second play of the game, Christian Ponder connected with Stephen Burton for a 52-yard pass due to a busted coverage.
"We were not sharp at all," Fangio said.
In all, the first team gave up 127 yards from scrimmage and six points during its two series of work. After watching his defense turn into one of the league's toughest in 2011 and control the early portion of training camp, Fangio said his players may have been too complacent.
The 49ers played just 51 defensive snaps on Friday night, meaning some players didn't receive as many snaps as he would have liked. But Fangio said he expects to get a better feel for his depth chart during Saturday night's matchup at Houston.
"We didn't get a great look at a lot of those guys, but hopefully we'll get that this weekend," Fangio said.