Ross Cockrell is still very much a work in progress.DURHAM, N.C. –
Duke’s redshirt freshman cornerback has made his share of mistakes in his first season as a collegiate starter, but he showed his promise last week by picking off two Marc Verica passes – and barely missing a third interception. Through nine games, he leads Duke with 10 total passes defended (three interceptions and seven breakups) – a total that ranks third-highest in the ACC.
“Ross Cockrell is one of the more talented young corners that I have been around,” Duke coach David Cutcliffe said recently. “Early on, he got his confidence shattered a little bit, but he’s got a lot of football in front of him. Before it’s over with, he’s going to be an all-conference corner.”
Amazingly, Cockrell was a virtual unknown coming out of Charlotte Latin High School. Although he possessed good cornerback size (6-0, 175 pounds) and good speed (he was a North Carolina prep champion at 100 and 200 meters; timed at 4.48 in the 40-yard dash last spring), Cockrell was not a hot property on the recruiting trail.
“Duke was the school that recruited me the heaviest,” he said. “I received another offer from Liberty. Those were the only two offers I had on the table.”
The Blue Devils only found out about Cockrell by chance.
“They were recruiting another receiver from my school – a guy who was a year above me,” Cockrell said. “Brenton Berson – he’s at Wofford now. They were recruiting him and I guess Coach [Mike] MacIntyre saw me on film … one thing led to another.”
Cockrell received an invitation to attend Coach Cutcliffe’s offseason camp, where he impressed the new Duke coach.
“We want people in camp,” Cutcliffe said. “I’m not a big highlight film guy. I’m not a big guy to have somebody tell me how good they are or to hear about his reputation. I want to coach them and see how they respond. We coach them hard during camp and Ross responded extremely well.”
Cutcliffe also liked Cockrell’s blood lines. The Duke coach loves the quote, “Apple trees produce apples.”
“His dad played at Columbia,” Cutcliffe said. “I had great conversations with his dad when they would come up to camp. I knew that Ross had that competitive nature that his dad possessed.”
The Education of a Corner
Cockrell wasn’t sure when he committed whether he’d end up at wide receiver or cornerback. He grew up idolizing Marvin Harrison, the wide receiver for the Colts.
“At first they told me they weren’t quite sure what I was going to play – either wide receiver or defensive back,” he said. “But after I came to the camp and after Tyree Watkins committed, I pretty much knew I would play cornerback.”
But not right away – Cockrell sat out the 2009 season as a redshirt.
“It helps to sit back and observe,” he said. “My body was not ready. The extra year helped me mature and learn to play.”
Even so, Cockrell was painfully inexperienced when he opened the 2010 season as one of Duke’s two starting cornerbacks.
“It’s been a learning process for me … a growing process,” he said. “The first game against Elon, I was nervous … terrible technique.”
Cockrell’s struggles continued against Wake Forest and Alabama, where he was beaten on several plays – although he did have a remarkable interception against the Deacons.
“Sometimes I would just panic,” he said. “Receivers would beat me off the line of scrimmage and I knew the ball was going to come to them and my mind would go blank and I would throw my hands in the air and that often turned into pass interference calls. Each week, Coach [Derek] Jones would tell me, ‘You can’t do this … you can’t do this! Use your technique … Use your technique!’
“He told me that over and over and finally I started to listen and things started turning up for me.”
Through those tough early weeks on the job, Cockrell found one source of support.
“They only thing I really had going for me was that I knew the coaches had faith in me,” he said. “During bad times, the coaches always had faith in me and expressed the faith they had in me. They helped give me the confidence to be where I’m at today and hopefully keep getting better and better as each game goes on.”
Cutcliffe said his faith in Cockrell never wavered.
“I knew that his skill level was excellent,” the Duke coach said. “I knew that when he went back to practice on Sunday night and Tuesday, that he didn’t shy away from any work. He was fighting through it. And the worst thing I could do was to take a good young player and bench him. I didn’t think that was called for in that circumstance. I also thought he was the best player we had available.
“He’s the right kind of person. Those kind of guys are easy to stick with.”
One of the skills that Cockrell had to polish was his ability to fight for the ball in the air. Over the years, that’s been a problem for Duke’s defensive backs – to be in position only to be beaten for possession by the opposing wide receivers.
“The term everybody uses is ‘ball skills’,” Cutcliffe said. “That could be improved. There’s a mentality when the ball is in the air – we all recruit good athletes – you look at the size of some of the receivers in this league. They’re so big. It’s difficult to find 6-3 corners. So what you have to do is take 6-foot or 5-11 or 5- 10 corners and teach technique. You improve their ball skills.
“It’s like a loose ball in basketball. There are guys who aren’t as tall or as big as everybody else, but they have great quick hands and ball skills. We’re doing some conditioning drills and it’s helped us.”
“Ball skills” is one of the reasons that Coach Cutcliffe has stuck with Cockrell.
“One of the reasons I was heavily recruited here was that they saw in me the ability to make plays when the ball is in the air,” Cockrell said. “They always told me that was my strong suit and I needed to rely on that. Rely on my technique. Get into position and do what I can do when the ball’s in the air. That’s part of the reason I was able to start the first game, because they thought I would be able to make those plays.”
It may have taken Cockrell several games to find himself, but he’s starting to make those plays – as he proved against Virginia.
“It all comes down to being comfortable,” the redshirt freshman cornerback said. “I’m more confident and more relaxed now. When we started the season, I was jittery all over. Because the coaches have a lot of faith in me, I have a lot of faith in myself. When I see the ball in the air lately, I’ve been in the right position and I just go up and compete for the ball.”
A Quality Cornerback
Cockrell demonstrated his new level of competence and confidence early against Virginia.
On the Cavs’ first possession, he picked off a Verica pass at the Virginia 17 yard-line and returned it 15 yards to the Virginia 2 – setting up a short touchdown drive.
On Virginia’s next possession, the Cavaliers drove to the Duke 11, when on second down, Cockrell intercepted a pass intended for Virginia’s Kris Burd in the end zone. At least he appeared to intercept it – after a long review, the officials ruled that the Duke defender had lost the ball when he hit the ground.
After the game, Cutcliffe still wasn’t sure the call was right, but Cockrell admitted that the replay official made the right call.
“It kind of bounced out of my hand when I hit the ground,” he said. “It was a good call.”
Cockrell got his second interception of the game – and the third of his brief career – in the third quarter. Just after Duke had rallied from a 28-24 deficit to take a 31-28 lead, Cockrell came up with an amazing catch of a deep pass off the fingertips of Dontrelle Inman.
“The receiver tipped it,” he said. “It hit my face mask and I juggled it … I was just trying to make a play.”
His pick set up a drive that ended in a Will Snyderwine field goal. Early in the fourth quarter, sophomore safety Walt Canty added another interception, setting up a 14-yard touchdown drive.
Together, the three interceptions led to 17 Duke points – which was easily the winning margin in a 55-48 victory. Yet, despite the success of Cockrell and Canty with their picks, Cockrell couldn’t view the day as a total success for the Duke secondary. After all, the Blue Devils allowed Verica a career-high 417 yards passing – 239 of those yards to Inman.
“We have mixed feelings about it,” Cockrell said. “Of course, anytime you have three turnovers, it’s a big plus. But if you have three turnovers and you allow a receiver to go over 200 yards on you, that’s a huge negative. We saw some things on tape that we did well and we saw some things on tape that we’ve got to work on – like we see every week.”
The next test will come from Boston College, which visits Wallace Wade Stadium this Saturday. The Eagles have had considerable success in recent weeks running the ball, but have thrown it rarely.
However, Cutcliffe and Cockrell can recall recent games with Army and Navy, when the Duke defense did a superb job stopping their run-oriented offenses – only to see both academy teams burn the Devils in the air.
“That’s definitely in the back of our minds,” Cockrell said. “We know going in against heavy run teams what their main focus is going to be. They’re going to run the ball and we’ve got to stop the run. Now on the back end, the DBs – especially [senior CB Chris Rwabukamba] and I, we have to stop the deep shot. The play-action pass, where the quarterback can take a seven-step drop and throw a deep post or a fade – that’s our job. We have to support the run, but we’re only secondary support.
“We’re the primary support for the deep pass.”
Cockrell has three more games this season to continue his development – three games to erase the taste of Duke’s early struggles and lay a strong foundation for next season.
“Going through the losing streak we did was tough because we always knew we were a better team than we showed,” he said. “Hopefully, in these last few games we can show that.”
No matter what happens the rest of this season, Cockrell will use the offseason to make himself a better player.
“I have a lot of work to do – a LOT of work to do,” he said. “There’s always something in your game that you can improve. For me, I have plenty of things I can improve. A rack of things come to mind – footwork, eye discipline, strength … there are things I need to improve on to get to the level I want to get to as a cornerback in the ACC.”
Cutcliffe is anxious to see how far Cockrell can go.
“He’s been taught some tough lessons,” the Duke coach said. “He’s getting his confidence back. He hurt his shoulder significantly [against Virginia]. He’s a tough youngster. He came back out there and finished the game and he came real close to having a three-interception day. That will help him. He’s played a lot of football. Now he’s not a rookie anymore.”
Ross Cockrell is not a rookie … but he’s not yet the star Cutcliffe expects him to become.
He’s still a work in progress.