MORGANTOWN, W.Va. -- So many things went wrong with West Virginia's defense last season that it's hard, really, to point fingers in any particular direction.You only have 10 of them, after all.And that's not enough.Oh, sure, you can single out your favorites. Start with coaching, move on to schemes, take a shot at philosophy and then throw in the quality of the opponents. Add health to the mix and you're halfway there.
But it's hard not to look at individual performances, too. Yes, that was a defense that had to replace the likes of Bruce Irvin and Najee Goode and Keith Tandy. But it was also one with seven starters returning. And few of them lived up to expectations.At the top of the list? Darwin Cook.That's not a critical assessment by an unattached observer. It's his own."I sucked,'' the West Virginia safety said. "There's no other way to put it. I just sucked.''Well, actually there are other ways to put it. And Cook did."Maybe I was just thinking I was hot [stuff],'' Cook said. "Not really hot [stuff], because that's not my attitude. I mean, I didn't show it because I'm a very humble person. But deep inside maybe I just felt like I was satisfied and I felt like I made it.''Perhaps it began with what is Cook's defining moment to date as a Mountaineer. In roughly 15 seconds on national television in the Orange Bowl 15 months ago, Cook became a star. On one end of the field he reached into a pile and picked up a fumble. Roughly 100 yards later he was crossing the goal line and igniting what would become a 70-33 rout of Clemson. Another 10 yards or so beyond that, he was bowling over the Orange Bowl mascot.Those 15 seconds made Cook a star. He was a go-to guy in the postgame interviews. He had secured a place in Mountaineer lore.And maybe, just maybe, that was enough for him."I don't feel like it got to me to the point where I was outwardly [cocky]. I was always the same,'' Cook said. "But I think inside I was just satisfied with myself. I made some play, I did this or I did that. Let's just say I could have attacked last year much harder than I did.''That he didn't goes without saying. Beginning with last year's spring drills and then summer workouts, fall camp and into the 2012 season, Cook figures he was just pretty much on cruise control. And for a while, that was fine. He kept his job, West Virginia started the season 5-0 and even though the defense was essentially awful even then, there were no red flags.
But as 5-0 became 5-5 and WVU's defense was the primary reason, Cook was hurt and he was exposed. He was benched, in part because he was hurt but also because he wasn't performing when he was healthy. And when it took him what seemed like forever to get healthy again and get another chance, he realized what he'd done and the position in which it had put him."You look back on film and you see all the things you could have done better,'' Cook said. "You see that you didn't play as hard as you were supposed to and things got taken away from you. And then you get hurt and could have come back harder if you'd worked harder."I just felt like last year was my due justice. I deserved every criticism that I got. It was all me, not being focused enough. And I can't do that again.''No one had to slap Cook across the face to make him realize what he'd done. Sure, it would be easy to think that when his playing time was taken away that it was a wake-up call, but he didn't need that."No, I realized it myself. I could turn on the film and watch myself and tell. I was like a different player,'' Cook said. "I realized it probably in the Iowa State game. I was getting back, I was getting a little more healthy, but I wasn't there yet. And I thought, maybe if I'd taken it more seriously I wouldn't be going through this. And maybe we wouldn't have gone through what we did.''Indeed, it wasn't just Cook who failed last season or didn't live up to expectations or potential.
"It was just terrible for me,'' Cook said. "It's still hard to sleep, really, just thinking about it all the time. That's probably one of my biggest regrets in my life, how things turned out last year.''So what did snap him out of it?"Life,'' Cook said. "Knowing that this isn't a game anymore.''Indeed, as Cook approaches his senior season, football isn't just fun and games anymore. Whether he has a future in the game beyond college remains to be seen, but the time to start considering that is not after the fact."Look at some of the seniors we had last year. Their stocks were high before last year and now their stocks have dropped,'' Cook said. "Life hits you real fast. You talk to them and you see how they're struggling. I don't want to put myself in that position. I want to put myself in the best position I can, no regrets looking back and all positive looking forward."That's what it comes down to. Plus, I feel like I kind of cheated my teammates. I did cheat my teammates last year by not working as hard as I was supposed to. I just feel like I let a lot of people down. I let my family down. It was real bad.''Reach Dave Hickman at 304-348-1734 or firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him at twitter.com/dphickman1.