Sometimes a college football player can get a mulligan during his career and West Virginia University senior safety Darwin Cook
believes his do-over is coming this year. Cook will be the first to admit that his junior season playing for the Mountaineers was not a very good one.
“Maybe if I would have taken things a lot more seriously I would have played better,” he admitted. “It was just terrible for me. It’s still hard to sleep, really, just thinking about it all the time. That’s probably one of my biggest regrets in my life right now - just my attitude and the way everything was. I just couldn’t get my hands to grasp what I was doing.”
Here is a quick refresher: Cook was the guy who took the ball away from Clemson’s Andre Ellington near the goal line in the 2012 Orange Bowl and raced 99 yards in the other direction for what turned out to be a game-changing touchdown. He also finished second on the squad in tackles with 85 while producing two interceptions and two fumble recoveries in 2011.
Then last year, things didn’t go quite as well for the Cleveland resident. He was hampered by injuries before losing his starting job midway through the season for games against TCU, Oklahoma State and Oklahoma until eventually getting back in the good graces of the defensive staff late in the year.
It was during that time standing on the sidelines when Cook realized that he better snap out of whatever state of mind he was in at the time.
“I just wasn’t playing like myself. You could see it on film,” he stated. “I just looked like a different player than my sophomore year.”
It was only after the Iowa State game, when he made the key play by forcing a goal line fumble late in the game that helped preserve West Virginia’s 31-24 win and snap its five-game losing streak, that Cook really took into account what a lost season 2012 was for him.
“Our team last year, the stock was high and now the stock has dropped and life hits you real fast,” he said. “I just don’t want to put myself in that position. I want to put myself in the best position I can, have no regrets looking back, and it’s all positive looking forward.”
Cook came to understand that in order to have the type of career he wants to have, and to legitimately pursue his dreams of one day playing pro football, he needed to get his act together.
“I feel like I cheated my teammates last year by not working as hard as I was supposed to and I just felt like I let a lot of people down – I feel like I let my family down and everything. It was just really bad last year,” he said.
There were times last year when Cook was visibly disgusted with the way the defense was playing and he was frequently willing to speak up about it. Don’t forget, Darwin was a part of some pretty good defenses at WVU, particularly his freshman year in 2010 when he played with a number of guys who are now in the NFL.
For his part, Cook says what happened last year stays in the rearview mirror.
“Last year I try and forget about it,” he said. “I just take this year as it’s own thing. Last year, we were supposed to be a national championship team and everything and Kansas State was supposed to be the worst team in the Big 12 and you saw what happened. I just can’t even talk about it. I can’t wait to get out on the field and just play.”
Even though West Virginia is without most of its star power from a year ago, Cook believes the team might actually be better in some respects. For one, he says everyone seems to be getting along a lot better.
“I feel like we are going to do big things this year just like when I was in high school. We had all the talent my junior year and our senior year when we came back we were more of a team, more friends, and we bonded,” Cook explained. “Little do people know, but that makes a huge difference - a HUGE difference and I’m just looking forward to what the season brings.”
Still, saying things and doing them are entirely different. The Mountaineers have to figure out how to keep people from getting into the end zone, how to stop them more frequently on third down and how to get to the quarterback more often. All of those things led to one of the worst statistical seasons in school history for the defense.
“You fix those things by working hard and being disciplined,” Cook said. “If you are disciplined in your pass coverage then nothing should get over your head. But we’ve just got to get a better pass rush and I feel like (Defensive line) Coach (Erik) Slaughter is doing a good job mixing up new drills and bringing new ideas to the table.”
In the secondary, Cook says new coaches Tony Gibson and Brian Mitchell are breaking things down to an elementary level and building the players back up from there.
“We do every drill. We do the footwork drill and we even do the drill where they throw a big, old bouncing ball and we’ve got to hit it so they won’t chop you and I feel like everything they’re doing is making us better,” Cook noted.
A little refresher now and again is good for everyone - even the veteran guys like Cook who are still really learning how to play the game. Cook actually came to WVU as a hand-in-the-dirt, 5-foot-11-inch defensive end in high school.
“I didn’t even know what cover two was until I got to college,” Cook laughed. “I had never backpedaled. The only time I backpedaled was for film for them so they could offer me a scholarship.”
Today, Cook is working hard and doing the things that he’s supposed to do. Coach Dana Holgorsen praised his hard work last week before stopping himself short. He didn’t want to heap too much praise on him just yet before the games count.
Perhaps Cook is getting the message, though.
“It’s so easy to get lost and it’s so easy to get complacent but I’m taking it like I’m a scrub. I’m practicing like I’m a redshirt freshman with no spot at all,” he said. “I’m trying to set an example for everyone else when they become seniors that you have to push hard and don’t relax.”
So, does Darwin Cook
believe he’s finally worked his way out of the doghouse?
“I’m back on the front porch now,” he chuckled. “I’m at least walking my dog now.”