WVU football: For Cook, returning to form is a priority
MORGANTOWN, W.Va. -- A lot of the coaching applied to safety Darwin Cook this spring has happened on the football field, but not all of it.
"Don't print too many good things about him," West Virginia Coach Dana Holgorsen said. "Then he'd think he has things figured out. He is far from that."
The senior from Cleveland is good, though, and seemingly better than he was last year. In the eighth game of the season and after 20 consecutive starts, Cook was benched for a full game because of some nagging injuries and lagging productivity.
This is WVU's final week of spring drills before Saturday's spring game with Cook as one of the handful of players on defense who has made the most of the practices and the adjustment to defensive coordinator Keith Patterson's version of a 3-4 defense.
"He had probably a substandard year for his expectations, but he's off to a great start now," Patterson said. "You can see he plays with such confidence. He's brought a completely different demeanor and attitude toward spring ball this year. He's heading in the right direction."
That's high praise, but the kind that would suggest Cook was a problem last season.
He had his low moments, but so did everyone else on defense. A lot of the errors in front of Cook would later affect him.
He still finished fourth on the team with 75 tackles and made a number of the effective plays. Cook broke up five passes, forced three fumbles and had one of four interceptions by the entire secondary.
Cook was also criticized for inconsistency and his practice habits became an issue deep in the season. He didn't play at all in the loss to TCU and then didn't start the two games after that.
"Just from meeting with him the last couple weeks, he wants to be great his senior year," said first-year safeties coach Tony Gibson. "He knows he didn't have a really good year last year. He wants to redeem himself and get back to where he was."
That would be the player who changed the Orange Bowl with a fumble recovery and a touchdown, the player who finished second on the team with 85 tackles in 2011, the player who willed himself to a scholarship as a destructive defensive end in high school who had 42 sacks his final two seasons.
Now four days before his final spring game precedes his final college season, Cook seems to be moving that way.
"There's not a practice that's gone by when he hasn't made a play, and it's not just an ordinary play," Gibson said. "It's one where you go, 'Wow, who just did that?' Then you look up you see him getting up from the pile."
Cook is a hitter, packing a force from the aggressive bandit position that would seem to defy his 5-foot-11, 205-pound frame. He happens to be an ideal counterpart for free safety Karl Joseph. As a freshman last season, Joseph was WVU's leading tackler and, according to the coaches, the best defensive player.
He, too, is a slugger, virtually the same size as Cook and wired to play the same way.
Joseph threw himself around the field all of last season and spent much of his down time sore or stiff or wrapped in ice.
"When I first saw him play, I thought, 'Man, that boy's going to get his neck broken jumping in there like that,' " Cook said. "But as time went on, I saw that's just how he really tackled."
Joseph would finish with 104 tackles, two interceptions and three forced fumbles, but he'd also affect the way those around him played. That tends to happen when a player progresses and produces like Joseph, but it was how he did things more than the things he did.
That started early. He wrestled former linebacker Josh Francis after a practice last spring, and to the surprise of his teammates, won the battle. Challenging Francis, who everyone recognized as one of the team's toughest players, was one thing. Triumphing was another.
In the same spring, he hit 6-foot, 220-pound running back Shawne Alston and knocked him to the ground, which then convinced Alston to run really hard the rest of the season.
Joseph didn't slow down during the season, either. He played just about every snap. It slowed him down in the middle of the season, but his effort and his statistics didn't disappear.
"He was a big inspiration for me - he doesn't even know it," Cook said. "But based on how he played and how he looked on film and how aggressive he was, he really pushed me to play like that. Playing with him and feeding off him was big."
Patterson is taking his safeties out of a more passive role in coverage where they patrolled a segment of the field and has loosely described what sounds like plans to use them to play the run and pressure the passer more because that's what they're good at.
And that's all Cook and Joseph needed to hear.
"It's going to be more of that this year," Cook said. "I feel like I'm going to be more into run-stopping. I feel like I'm going to be more in into the game and he's going to be more into the game. I just feel like we're both going to do more.
"We've got the attitude that we're the best. He feels like he's the best. I feel like I'm the best. We'll take that attitude on the field every day and hope it rubs off on everyone else."
Contact sportswriter Mike Casazza at email@example.com or 304-319-1142. His blog is at blogs.dailymail.com/wvu.