Ross Cockrell into the deep end of the pool.DURHAM -- Three years ago Duke threw redshirt freshman
He almost sank. Rusty and raw, the cornerback was abused by ACC quarterbacks and wide receivers.
“He wasn’t fast enough, he wasn’t big enough,” recalls Derek Jones, who coaches Duke’s defensive backs. “He was a baby. But he had all the intangibles. His natural instincts were good, and we knew he would get better. You have to have growing pains as long as you’ve got the ability to learn. He never really beat himself up. He had a vision.”
Fast forward to 2013 and Ross Cockrell is the face of Duke football. He’s a returning first team All-ACC player and is on all the preseason checklists that monitor the nation’s top defenders.
But Cockrell is more than just arguably Duke’s best football player. He’s also a den mother to a group of young defensive backs, and he’s determined to make sure they learn from the growing pains that plagued him back in 2010.
Duke has been hit by a plague of injuries and attrition at defensive back, leaving the program with only three recruited upperclass defensive backs: Cockrell and fellow fifth-year seniors Anthony Young-Wiseman and Garett Patterson. Young-Wiseman has some experience at safety, while cornerback Patterson has played mostly on special teams.
Patterson has started alongside Cockrell at the other corner spot in Duke’s first two games, but Duke has also used true freshmen Breon Borders, Bryon Fields and Deondre Singleton heavily in the cornerback rotation.
The starters at safety are redshirt sophomore Jeremy Cash — a touted transfer from Ohio State — sophomore Dwayne Norman and redshirt freshman Corbin McCarthy, who got on the field in two games before suffering a season-ending shoulder injury last year.
Cockrell and quarterback Anthony Boone, now out indefinitely with a broken collarbone suffered in week two against Memphis, spent this summer organizing twice-weekly morning workouts, with 60-70 regular participants. But Cockrell admits that he’s spent extra time with the young defensive backs.
“The best teacher is experience,” he says. “I try to tell them the best I can what games are like, what kind of speed is out there. But you really don’t learn until you get out and play and experience it yourself. I show them tape from my freshman season. I’m not that player anymore. They kind of lose track of how hard I worked to get where I am. It doesn’t just happen by accident. At any point during the season, you have your ups and your downs. What determines how you progress as a player is how you handle your downs. For all of our young DBs, they’re going to have to handle some down moments so they can have great moments later on.
“Offenses are going to go after whatever weaknesses they see. It’s a basic law of nature. I try to make sure guys don’t show any weaknesses on the field. If you can do that, then you can protect yourself.”
Jones says Cockrell “gave me a progress report over the summer, letting me know how the young DBs are working out, what they need to do to improve. Everything he does is exactly what I coach. When I do a clinic and show film, it’s always film of Ross. Guys will follow Ross. You become addicted to Ross.”
Head coach David Cutcliffe agrees. “Right now he’s coaching as fast and as hard as he can coach. He knows all five positions, can play all five positions, can demonstrate all five positions.”
Cockrell says he’s not a finished product. “I’m working on overall strength, especially arm and legs, on grip strength, so I can rip away balls from receivers. I’m working on my physicality at the line of scrimmage. I’m working on creating turnovers, interceptions, forced fumbles, recovering fumbles, anything to get our offense back on the field.”
He also wants more consistency. “At any moment they can come after you and score a touchdown. That’s what keeps me on my toes. I’ve been in situations when I have lost focus, when I have lost my discipline, and that has cost us big plays. Understanding that from my past experiences helps me going forward.”
Duke’s defense will need all the big hits and turnovers it can generate. Cockrell calls the late-season defensive collapse Duke underwent in 2012 “embarrassing for everyone concerned with Duke football. We know as a defense we’re going to have to improve. Our front seven has taken it upon themselves to be there for us and to make plays. Protecting ourselves deep is a point of emphasis. Limit big plays, force turnovers, finish plays, finish games.”
Cutcliffe says his defensive backs are crucial to that. “The first thing we’ve got to do is prevent explosives. If we can limit that by having a strategy to limit it, that will help us. Garett Patterson has tons of practice experience but not much playing experience. He has all the skills that can play corner. The rest of the prospects are freshmen, either redshirt or true. So, you’re going to see them. We’re going to have count on some young people in the back end, where you can get beat and hit quickly. But we can help those guys. We’ve got some talent back there but we have to put them in position to make plays.”
Jones adds another wrinkle. “The front seven? I teach my backs that you don’t ever expect anyone to give you help. Be prepared to beat your man by yourself. Anything else is a bonus.”
Jones feels like Cockrell fills that role. “I have no idea what his 40 time is. He doesn’t look fast because he doesn’t need to. His eyes are always in the right place; his feet are always in the right place. He doesn’t look like an intimidator, but his confidence level is so high that he gets in other people’s heads. We’ll put him on the best guy. There’s no reason to hide him. You match good with good.”
Boone has known Cockrell since they attended the same camps growing up in North Carolina’s Charlotte area. The Duke quarterback makes no attempt to hide his admiration for Cockrell.
“He’s a vet,” Boone notes. “He’s become very vocal, a leader of the defense. Everybody knows he’s made a lot of plays in a lot of big games. We can rely on him. He’s real savvy. He’s one of those guys who’ll get hit in the mouth and get back up and hit you in the mouth. He loves to compete. That’s what he does best.”
Cockrell already has his degree in political science and is working on a graduate degree. He sees law school in the future and eventually wants to be an athletics director.
Jones thinks that will come only after a long NFL career. “His character and personality make him a low-risk investment. He takes care of his body, he’s a natural leader and he has great knowledge of the game. He’ll be around 10 years, long after the flashy guys are gone.”
But there’s work to be done before any of that happens. “Last year gave us a taste of what we need to do to succeed,” Cockrell says. “We’re ready to take it to the next level and I’m ready to be a part of that.”