This isn't exactly how Darwin Cook dreamed he'd feel on draft day. On the eve of the 2014 NFL draft, Cook is projected as a late-round pick or an undrafted free agent. For this three-year starter at West Virginia, there is no golden ticket into the league, and so, he quickly admits, he's more stressed today than ever before.
Cook, a 5-foot-11 and 203-pound safety, led the Mountaineers with four interceptions last fall, returning one for a touchdown, and his 74 tackles were second only to linebacker Nick Kwiatkoski (86). Cook was named to the All-Big 12 second team.
When we caught up last week, Cook was trying to keep his mind off the odds, playing video games with former Mountaineer and current Steelers linebacker Terence Garvin at Garvin's place in Pittsburgh. Garvin, as you'll remember, signed with the Steelers as an undrafted free agent last year and eventually made the squad. Cook might have to follow a similar track; his pre-draft rankings vary wildly, but NFLDraftScout.com has him pegged as the No. 16 strong safety.
Cook touched on a number of topics, from his childhood — he started as a defensive end — to his time at West Virginia and his NFL chances, in the transcript below.
What has your training regimen been these last few months?
"I've been training in Morgantown. I've been at the Rec doing my own little thing. I went down to Florida to train for a while, and being here [in Morgantown] for four years I know what to do as far as techniques and lift movements, so I just copy that and work out by myself at the Rec. [In Florida], I was just doing speed training. I was really trying to get healthy again from the end of this year. I really wasn't able to train as much as I wanted to, but I got healthy fast enough to be able to perform decently at my pro day.
"I felt like it went well at the pro day. Went up under 4.5 [4.49 in the 40-yard dash]. I was expecting to go faster than that. I'll take the 4.4. It's better than what people expected me to run. Did really good in all my skills drills, caught everything. Had a really good day, don't think it could have went any better for me."
At West Virginia you certainly displayed a ballhawk mentality; what strengths are on your calling card for the next level?
"Just my relentless effort in pursuit of the ball. That's my biggest strength. If you can get to the ball, good things will happen to you. I used to play defense end in high school before I played safety. I never played safety until I got to WVU. I never backpedaled or anything until I got to WVU. It was a whole new experience for me. I wasn't even into safeties; I was into like Julius Pepper and guys like that. When I played safety everything was new to me. When Coach [Steve] Dunlap told me to backpedal and stuff like that he told me it was actually better because I wasn't taught wrong, so he could teach me the way he wanted to. It was hard getting on coverages and stuff. As the years went on, I started feeling like a safety. The last year is when I really started coming into my own a little bit. I still got a lot more improvement to go, because I never knew what safeties did until I got to college. This is my third year starting and actually getting playing time at safety, so I've got lots of room to improve. In high school I played defensive end and receiver, so I guess that's what some teams thought would make a good safety as far as ball skills and aggressiveness. Some teams had me at linebacker, but I'm too small for that. WVU was a good decision for me."
How would you assess your senior season and especially that safety tandem with you and Karl Joseph?
"My senior year I was injured, but that's not an excuse for me — I wasn't on my game as I was supposed to have been. Regardless of that fact, I wasn't playing the way I was supposed to play. My senior year, me and him together was fun. You just know where his gap is, and you don't want to run into where his gap is because he's going to kill you like he did Doug Rigg. It's just fun playing with a player like that you know if it goes to that side of the field he'll smash 'em. I really believe in my heart that despite our bad year and 4-8 record and terrible defense, as a group I felt we had the best combination of safeties WVU has ever had, as far as statistically and as far as the awards, I guess, and the way we played together. I just hope people remember that, but I don't know if a lot of people came to games last year."
Looking at the man behind the stats, what's your drive as you chase this NFL dream?
"I come from East Cleveland, Ohio. You know the inner-city, it's a bad little place. That's my drive — it was my mom; father wasn't there all the time. I've got a little brother and little sister, so they're looking up to me. I've got an older brother that graduated college, and that's who I look up to. He's the reason I play, because of what he did. There's just a lot of people depending on you and a lot of you depending on yourself, so you don't want to fail.
"I went back to Cleveland for about three days after the pro day, and then I came right back to work. I'll be going back to Cleveland shortly, because that's where I'm going to be at to watch and see what happens on draft day. It's exciting for them [family and friends], but it's stressful for me. I don't really like talking about it."
This is hardly a college exam anymore, what's your mentality as we approach the draft?
"My mentality? I've got the worst mentality in the world. I feel like I'm not going to get picked up, like I did everything I needed to do, made the big plays, played hard, did good at my pro day, three-year starter and all that stuff that doesn't mean nothing, really. My mentality is to keep even-keeled and just not expect anything. I know when I get in there it's going to be hell for anybody who's not getting that paycheck. If you're an undrafted free agent like me or a third-string receiver, that's when I'm going to show myself, but can't do nothing about it now but sit and pray."
What have you heard from NFL scouts or personnel as your biggest areas of improvement?
"They say I'm an inconsistent tackler; I miss a lot of tackles. I understand that, because at the beginning of the season I was just playing hard and just trying to kill everybody. That's just the way I play: fly and kill, not really break down and try to tackle the person all soft and stuff. In the middle of the season, my coach Tony Gibson told me about that, and we worked on it in practice and I got much better through the last five games. That's the biggest thing. It can be a crutch, but it also can't be because you want your safeties to come down and kill. If you miss a tackle, at least you stopped their feet for somebody else if you've got pursuers. That's my biggest critique on myself, though."
Is that something you can work on easily in the offseason?
"Tackling? Come on. I can tackle anybody if you just want me to tackle 'em. Come on now, that's not hard. I'm trying to send a message every time. That's what I've gotta get better at, learning when to slow down and when to speed up. I just go 100 percent all the time."
Is safety a position that breeds that reckless, killer mentality?
"It is. Not every safety has it, it's just gotta be in you from, well, I don't know what. I'm just glad I'm one of the players that has it."
What teams have you heard from in this process?
"I've talked to the Browns, Cardinals, Texans, Dolphins and then the Colts just sent something to my house. It's really nothing major or nothing like that. Even if they were talking major stuff, I still wouldn't believe it. I'm just going with the flow. Four or five teams called me, and they say the teams that don't call you will be the ones that pick you up. The Seattle Seahawks never called Bruce [Irvin], but they picked him in the 14th pick in the first round. Keith Tandy never got called. Things like that kind of keep me grounded. I know I put everything out there on the field and on my pro day. If somebody doesn't want a player like me, so be it. I'll just go somewhere else, I don't know, CFL and play. I just love football."
Have you gotten help from former West Virginia teammates like Irvin or Garvin?
"I mean, it's really no help for nobody. It's everybody for himself. Nobody really wants to see you succeed that much, you know, nobody wants to see you do better than them. It wasn't really even talking, but just, 'Hey, man, go for what you know.' That's how it is out here. It's hard after college, every man for himself. Terrence talks to me every day, but Terrence gets on my nerves because he had one of the hardest paths in Steelers history. Nobody had ever made it from tryouts to the roster, so when he's talking to me I'm trying to tell him that everybody is not you. Just because you did it doesn't mean the same opportunity is going to open up for me. I've got my own path, my own story, so I'm just going to let myself tell it."
What are some of your goals going forward, whether or not you latch onto a team this week?
"My first dream is just to touch people in East Cleveland. The NFL was always something I wanted to do and loved and day-dreamed about, but in the environment I was in the chances of me making it wasn't something I would think about every day. I know there are kids in East Cleveland now that are still thinking like that and don't really think it's realistic because nobody has ever made it. Five minutes from East Cleveland Shaw, my high school, is Glenville, and Ted Ginn coaches there. It's right down the street, and they've got guys going to the NFL, and the only guy who has gone to the NFL from Shaw was Darryl Talley. That was, what, 20 or 30 years ago? When I make it, it'll give guys hope. I'll go back and give a couple free camps and just share the spirit with everybody in East Cleveland."
You said everyone is carving his own story; what's a theme in yours — the underdog?
"Man, who you tellin'. I've felt like that my whole life. In high school I really didn't think much of it because I knew I had four years to prove myself in college, like you can rank me right now but I've still got to go to college and make it through academics and everything about college to get to the NFL. Just to be ranked going into the NFL with nothing to do but a pro day, you need to put everything out and it sucks not getting the recognition other people get. I feel like I did enough, but I'm not trying to give excuses for nothing."
What are a few prominent memories from your time at West Virginia?
"The Orange Bowl is No. 1. It's growing on me day by day because when it happened I really wasn't thinking too much about it because I'm not really a cocky, me-me guy. I'm just a humble guy that really don't think about much but the next day. That was one of my best moments, though. The other moment was Steve Dunlap, in film, when I really started to understand football. I really didn't understand football. I knew coverages, but my assignments were always contain, rip, steal, things that defensive linemen do, but I didn't understand the full defensive scheme — Cover 2, Cover 3, things like that. He really had patience with me, took his time whereas I know other coaches wouldn't have had that much patience with me. I'm just grateful that he was there, gave me the opportunity, stuck with me and believed I could do it. That was another big highlight because that's when it clicked in my head that I could really do this."
Last season was a bit disappointing record-wise. What's the outlook now, from an alum's perspective?
"I think the defense is going to be better than last year. It's going to improve just through the young guys getting older, and some of the young guys we had in a couple of positions just got better, like Daryl Worley and Karl Joseph. They're going to get better, and that's what we need. My five years there I never really had a corner like Daryl Worley, so that was hard when you don't really have solid corners — not saying that Broderick Jenkins or Pat Miller were terrible, and Travis Bell was good and helped me out a lot — but guys like Worley and Travis just make Karl's job so much easier. That just makes the free safety, whoever that is, J.T. [Jeremy Tyler] or Ricky [Rumph], it makes their job so much easier. The secondary will look good just by having that one really, really good corner. I feel like Daryl is a really, really high-profile corner. That makes the back end so much stronger. I feel like the defense is going to be good. The offense, you know, struggled. That's going to be how it goes, but they're going to be better than last year, I know that. I don't know how much better, though."
This is clearly a stressful period of your life, but are you finding some excitement in it, too?
"I have a lot of optimism. I was looking at last year's draft and looking at rankings, because they've got me ranked from 20th safety to the 30th safety to the 18th safety, you know. Last year, Tony Jefferson from Oklahoma was the No. 1 safety, I guess, a week before the season ended and he wound up not getting drafted. A guy that was ranked [way lower] got picked up. Things like that, don't nobody really know. It's all talk to keep entertainment up and to keep people listening. I understand that everybody's got their job to do, but that's the thing that keeps me optimistic. I really think something good is going to happen for me. You can't have a career like I had ... I'm not saying I had a Sean Taylor or Brian Dawkins type career — I'm just saying I had a good career, not necessarily really good because I really don't know, but just think: if somebody, a redshirt sophomore from Alabama took back a 99-yard touchdown in the championship, what would happen? They'd jump, and they'd go first round regardless of whatever happens. Just imagine if that guy ran a 4.4, you know? I just don't understand, but that's the NFL. I just want to get in there, and I know I'm going to make my money somehow."