Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Ross Cockrell's personal rise mirrors Duke's rise

DURHAM - Two years ago, on a nearly every-week basis, Duke head coach David Cutcliffe told the media that Ross Cockrell was going to be a great football player.

And every time, the reporters would pause, put their hand to their mouth or reveal whatever was their personal tell that indicated disbelief.

But now, two years later, a question was posed to Cutcliffe: is Ross Cockrell the best cornerback in the ACC?

Cutcliffe declined to answer that specifically, saying he didn't want to put a target on Cockrell's back entering Duke's game at Florida State Saturday. Statistically, though, Cockrell, now a redshirt junior, is, in fact, the best cornerback in the league, as he leads the ACC in total passes defended and is tied for the lead with four interceptions. He ranks in the top four nationally in both categories as well.

 "Ross is outstanding," Cutcliffe said. "You guys know I've said that since he was a freshman, even though it wasn't going well."

Cockrell did struggle as a freshman, as opposing teams targeted him relentlessly. In his second career game, Wake Forest (and future NFL) receiver Chris Givens told him, "Man, you're not that good," something that has stuck with Cockrell to this day.

At the time, though, Cockrell didn't realize the extent of his struggles.

"While I was in the season, I didn't realize how bad of a season it really was," he said, evoking laughter.  "So I guess that ignorance is pristine. That's how I would describe it, I was ignorant to the fact that I was getting picked on. But now, looking back at it, I can see it.

Cockrell went to work that offseason on his strength and footwork. He also spent a large amount of time studying film, a habit he still keeps.

"Ross is very smart at the game," said Tony Foster, a redshirt senior cornerback. "He has a knowledge of the types of routes that receivers run and how to break on them. And the thing that Ross does is that his film study is amazing. He's helped me out so much with my film study, giving me tips on what to see."

As Cockrell has improved, so, too has the Duke program. He's now a team captain and one of the to-go guys for reporters seeking information. When asked if he thought the Cockrell from two years ago could play for Duke today, he laughed.

"No, he not would play at all," he said. "I will say that."

Cutcliffe, too, got a chuckle when he heard that.

"There are rocky roads with young players, and you have to watch that that doesn't destroy their confidence. I don't think anything could ever destroy Ross Cockrell mentally or emotionally. He may be one of the toughest people mentally that I've ever known."

Not even a late-game miscue last week against UNC could rattle Cockrell. He was the one that failed to corral the North Carolina fumble late in the fourth quarter, the one Gio Bernard scooped up and scored with to give the Tar Heels the lead with 3:13 remaining.

Fellow veterans Sean Renfree and Conner Vernon redeemed him, though. And Jamison Crowder, one of the talented, young players that didn't exist at Duke when Cockrell was playing two years ago, sealed the Duke win with his fourth-down touchdown catch.

The combination of young and old has resulted in Duke's first bowl birth since 1994. Now that is a notion that would have blown reporters' poker faces two years ago.

- Laura Keeley


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Anonymous said...

Don't stop now Duke...at least 2 winnable games left and you're standing alone atop the ACC Coastal. What a great story.

beefactor said...

Ross has really learned to be in the right positions and find the ball. Occasionally overmatched in terms of size, but he may be the best Duke has had in single coverage since Talley. Hoping for two more W's before the bowl game!