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Mike Casazza: WVU’s Cook explains why defense was worst ever

MORGANTOWN, W.Va. - If you weren't a fan of how he defended passes in the back end of West Virginia's defense last season, if the way he tried for spectacular tackles instead of simple ones didn't make you happy, if his benching late in the season seemed perhaps overdue, at least credit safety Darwin Cook for this:

He understands the totality of the trouble the Mountaineers had on defense in 2012. He knows he played a part.

"You saw it last year," said Cook, a senior from Cleveland. "It was terrible."

Disregard the statistics and the rankings, if you can. Those are numbers. This is a tale best told with words, particular words, the ones chosen with the same care Cook gives to a quarterback's eyes as he drops back in the pocket and surveys all that's before him.

This is a story not about who or what, but about both and about how they came together to explain why. Why was last year the very worst in school history on the side of the line of scrimmage toughened by the likes of Sam Huff and Canute Curtis, by Duke Henshaw and Jeff Merrow, by Bo Orlando and Aaron Beasley?

"Every coach has got different schemes, good, bad or indifferent," Cook said. "It's just the scheme of it and how you feel about the scheme. It was just two different schemes, no better than the other, but it was just the way we felt about it."

The Mountaineers waved goodbye to Jeff Casteel after the Orange Bowl victory and watched him take his hands off the program he'd help mold since 2001, but leave a thumbprint behind for Joe DeForest to deal with in his first season as a defensive coordinator.

DeForest's time was short and shoddy and WVU had neither the answers nor the players to make a quick and capable switch from Casteel's 3-3-5 to DeForest's 3-4. Mostly, though, the Mountaineers were without players willing to provide the answers.

"It was schemes, but we had the attitude last year that - I just don't know," Cook said. "We just didn't get it down. It's not on the coaches or anything. It's on us and the way we thought and the way we played."

This did not go unnoticed. It wasn't ignored. It just wasn't cured, even despite extreme measures. Cook had started 20 straight games before he was simply benched and never played in a loss to TCU, that when the secondary collapsed on the game's most significant play, a 94-yard touchdown pass with 88 seconds to go to precede the double overtime outcome.

"We were yelled at," he said. "We were disciplined. I'd say they tried their best and it was on us. We did not take discipline, just because we were young and had a lot of young people playing."

DeForest has stepped back to run the special teams and is replaced by Keith Patterson. It looks like he'll keep the 3-4 and tailor a few things to his teachings. Even when put together, those little things won't amount to the biggest change to happen under him or even around him.

The Mountaineers don't want a repeat performance in 2013, but it has very little to do with the way they play the game. It's all about the way they treat it. Last year, it didn't mean as much to them as it should have.

"I thought that's how it was supposed to be," said Cook, who wound up starting the final three games last season. "Then as things turned and the turmoil went down and the way things changed this year, I feel like this is the direction we need to go in the future."

The coaching staff is teaching lessons about the history of the program. Cook's coach, Tony Gibson, shared an intimate story about his father's job in a coalmine, and many players realized they'd never taken the pre-game Mountaineer Mantrip seriously.

Even in practice, there are new and restored features, like the pursuit drill that forces the defensive players to turn and rally to a randomly placed ball to illustrate their desire. It feels right again and not long after it felt so wrong.

"Just the whole feel of it, it's not explainable," Cook said. "As far as guys who have been here and know how the old defense used to be and how we used to carry ourselves and how we used to practice and everything else, there's a similar feeling."

Cook won't promise everything will be better. He knows every team in the country looks good flying around the field in spring practice drills. He's heard teammates and peers say in three springs previously that everything is different and improved from where it had been before.

In an honest moment, he says he doesn't know what will happen in 2013 and admits it is way too early to offer guesses about the future.

He just knows WVU won't repeat history.

"I've been here five years," he said. "I know when things are going in the right direction and I know when things are going in the wrong direction. I honestly feel now like we're going in the right direction."

Contact sportswriter Mike Casazza at or 304-319-1142. His blog is at 


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