MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — His regrets stacked steep as Law School Hill, WVU safety Darwin Cook detailed his offseason transformation, both personal and athletic, and given the all-in demands placed on college football players, the two always are intertwined.
He wishes had been more driven in the weight room, more engaged during meetings, more sharply focused toward his field assignments. By giving more, Cook swears West Virginia would have won more. For certain, a defense as brittle and bust-prone as the Mountaineers fielded in 2012 had countless players at fault, but Cook, a fourth-year junior at the time, proclaimed himself most guilty.
“I take a lot of the blame for what happened last year,” he said. “If I had just been better, worked harder and had my mind right, we would’ve been so much better off.”
From a mascot-tackling sensation in the Orange Bowl to the coaches’ doghouse 10 months later, Darwin Cook said the dropoff provided a parable on how “you can become a nobody in a minute.”
At times he deluded himself, blaming a mysterious nerve injury in one leg for his limited mobility, then growing frustrated when coaches made only casual reference to his injury upon benching Cook for portions of three November games. From a mascot-tackling sensation in the Orange Bowl to the coaches’ doghouse 10 months later, Cook said the dropoff provided a parable on how “you can become a nobody in a minute.”
Yet before self-doubt consumed him and before the resentment festered into something cancerous, November’s nobody began to look inwardly, to cite his own failings rather than scoffing at the situation.
“At the time, I felt like I gave it my all, but I know I didn’t deep down inside,” he said. “Only you can judge that.”
Judging from what his coaches witnessed throughout the offseason and 12 spring practices, Cook’s commitment and performance levels have soared. Head coach Dana Holgorsen, rarely able to mask his disdain for players who aren’t giving max effort, said “Cook looks totally different than he did a year ago. He’s not limping around and making excuses.”
Head coach Dana Holgorsen, rarely able to mask his disdain for players who aren’t giving max effort, said Cook looks totally different than he did last season: “He’s not limping around and making excuses.”
New safeties coach Tony Gibson has seen in Cook playmaking reminiscent of the 99-yard fumble return against Clemson and the two forced fumbles that saved WVU against Maryland last September.
“There’s not a practice that’s went by where he has not made a play,” Gibson said. “And it’s not just an ordinary play — it’s something where you think, ‘Wow, who just did that?’ and there’s No. 25 getting up from the bottom of the pile or breaking on a ball.
“I think that he realizes now this is it for him — this is his senior year. Meeting with him the last couple weeks, he wants to be great his senior year. He knows he didn’t have a very good year last year and he wants to redeem himself.”
Gibson, an assistant undergoing his own reputation redemption after controversially following Rich Rodriguez to Michigan in December 2007, can empathize with his bandit safety. Together, they’re crucial components in shoring up the backend of a defense that was humiliated and perforated throughout last season, becoming the most scored-upon defense in WVU history (38.8 points allowed per game).
“What if that was my last year?” Cook said this week.
For some of Cook’s 2009 signing-class friends, last year was their last. Because he redshirted as a freshman, however, Cook has a chance to write a better ending to his college career. He displays no airs of being a 23-game starter, any shred of entitlement having been ripped away by the last fall’s humbling. “I’m taking it like I’m a scrub,” he said. “I’m practicing like I’m a redshirt freshman, like I ain’t even got no spot at all.”
“I’m just staying on my right path. If six months go by and I don’t do what I’m supposed to do, where am I going to be? I could be selling pizzas.” — Darwin Cook
That approach resonates with defensive coordinator Keith Patterson, who lauded Cook for bringing “a completely different demeanor and attitude toward spring ball.” Yet in the same fashion Cook shook off the criticism of his substandard junior season, he won’t buy into the recent flattery.
“I’m just trying to keep at it, keep the same hunger,” he said. “I’m not listening to anything good, not reading anything good.
“I’m just staying on my right path. What have I got — six months to go? If six months go by and I don’t do what I’m supposed to do, where am I going to be? I could be selling pizzas.”
That job at Domino’s is unlikely, considering Cook projects to graduate in May with a degree in sports and exercise psychology. He said his 2.7 GPA has rebounded from a couple poor years when he first arrived at WVU, but that wasn’t his first or worst academic pickle. He recounted owning a 0.3 GPA as a high school freshman — saved from a Blutarsky only by the D’s he earned in health and sociology.
“I was too busy trying to impress all the girls with my fake Jordans,” said Cook, whose abysmal grades sidelined him from playing football as a sophomore at Cleveland’s Shaw High. On one particular night that had a rock-bottom feel, his mom sat crying over his report card while the 14-year-old Cook retreated to his bedroom, where for two hours he prayed in solitude. Prayed for what, he wasn’t sure. He just recognized it was a heavy moment, transitional, corrective, life-altering. He resolved to change his path.
The next schoolyear he was running track and playing football again. Playing football well enough to earn scholarship offers from Cincinnati and WVU. Going on five years later, he harbors NFL hopes like any major-college starter would, but Cook said his dream job is to counsel young athletes.
In that capacity, he’ll have cautionary tales to share, first-hand recollections of a somebody-turned-nobody-turned-somebody again.