“We've been all over the place, a roller coaster ride. But I wouldn't trade anything. I'd do it all over again.”
Cook went from the highs of the recruiting process when the state's top prospect was targeted by the likes of Alabama, Southern Cal and Oklahoma. He enrolled at midterm when Arkansas had a void at offensive tackle, but ultimately blocked on extra point units to burn a season of eligibility as a true freshman.
The Springdale Har-Ber product earned the starting spot at right tackle as a sophomore, but was beaten out by a junior college transfer after six games.
It appeared something similar would happen last year. After working at tackle in the spring, Bret Bielema and new line coach Sam Pittman moved him to guard to start the season. After four starts there, Cook was replaced by true freshman Denver Kirkland.
With right tackle starter Grady Ollison battling ankle issues, Cook returned to his old position. That's when the light came on for Cook and the coaching staff hasn't looked back since.
Bielema and Pittman both said over and over before that moment that the move to guard was a sign of the future, noting the NFL would prefer the 6-7, 330-pounder inside. Perhaps he wasn't quick enough to battle SEC defensive ends, the best athletes on the field?
“That's what we thought, but Brey has done very well at tackle,” Pittman said. “He's held up in protection. Generally, when I've moved someone inside, they never go back outside. Brey is the first to have done that.”
Pittman said he still may be an NFL prospect at tackle.
“All he needs is a chance at the combine,” Pittman said. “If they see him there and measure all the things he can do, he'll get their attention. He can pop 225 on the bench about 40 times. He's very strong. He's very good in the run game. He's a better puller than some thought. He has some skills and I think he'll have some value for someone.”
Pittman calls him the “glue” to the offensive line, the leader of a tight group. When Cook calls, they all jump.
“He's the guy who gets the guys together to watch film on their off days,” Pittman said. “They follow Brey. Travis Swanson was that guy last year and was good. But Brey has been very good, too, just as good as Travis.”
Cook said it was just a natural role of being the senior in a young bunch.
“I felt that it was my place to do it,” he said. “Plus, it's a great group of young guys. They are fun to be around.”
Junior college transfer Sebastian Tretola looks up to Cook like a brother.
“I do think he's the glue to our group,” Tretola said. “I may be a junior, but it's my first year and I look up to him. He's been great to teach me how we do things. He's a great leader. We all look up to him as a brother. He knows our offense, our system. He knows how to get work done.”
Cook said the bond they have developed “is special. I love all these guys. They are going to do very well as they move forward and it's going to be exciting to watch. It's a tight knit group.”
How that group plays against a fast and physical Ole Miss defensive front will be the key to how senior day goes for the Razorbacks. Cook said it's been important to stay clear of the emotions of what senior day will become late in the week to get “the Xs and Os right” for the game plan against Ole Miss.
Sophomore defensive tackle Robert Nkemdiche (6-4, 280) leads the Ole Miss front. But the Rebels will rotate 10 players in the four positions. Ends Fadol Brown (6-4, 280) and C.J. Johnson (6-2, 225) are both standouts.
Nkemdiche had a war with Dan Skipper, who played guard last year. Tretola said that matchup was mentioned in meetings this week when coaches said, “He's got some history with Dan. I heard a little about it.”
Cook knows Nkemdiche brings some excitement to the game.
“He's very talented,” Cook said. “He's very strong. We are excited to play against him.”
The emotions are going to be strong Saturday.
“I know they will be there for the seniors,” Cook said. “We just have to concentrate until we get there so we will be prepared to play at our best.”
Senior linebacker Martrell Spaight said he's already teared up in midweek thinking about it.
“I couldn't help it,” Spaight said. “And I know I will again Saturday. That's just the way I am. I feel like I just got here and now it's almost over. It's going to be very emotional.”
There are 20 seniors on the UA roster, 14 in the two deep. Along with Cook and Spaight, other listed starters in the senior class are Trey Flowers (defensive end), Alan Turner (safety), Tevin Mitchel (nickel), AJ Derby (tight end), Sam Irwin-Hill (punter) and Alan D'Appollonio (deep snapper).
Top 10 Keys to Victory
1, O-line Play – Arkansas had its best protection day last week against LSU, relying on some moving pocket tricks on bootleg and roll outs for Brandon Allen with success. The Hogs gave up just one sack against a fine group of LSU pass rushers. Ole Miss, led by Robert Nkemdiche, also has a fine pass rush and probably relies on more blitzing from defensive coordinator Dave Wommack, a former Arkansas coordinator. The Rebels have been piecing together an O-line over the last few weeks with fine left tackle Laramy Tunsil out with a bicep injury. He's back and apparently healthy this week. Can Tunsil keep quarterback Bo Wallace upright against an improving Arkansas defensive front? How these two groups play is probably a huge key.
2, Quarterback play – Ole Miss quarterback Bo Wallace has a history of up-and-down performances. Even Arkansas safety Alan Turner mentioned the “the good Bo, bad Bo” phrase this week that has been associated with Wallace. The Hogs expect the “good Bo.” Arkansas quarterback Brandon Allen had his best performance last week in a no turnover day against LSU. Turnovers will likely be again this week. The Hogs are at zero in turnover ratio. Ole Miss is a healthy plus 13 after intercepting 19 passes in the first 10 games. Cornerback Senquez Golson has nine interceptions. Allen needs to be aware of where No. 21 (Golson) lines up.
3, Senior day – It's already been mentioned in this column's lead. It's hard to imagine any better effort than what the Hogs have gotten from Flowers, Spaight and Turner in recent weeks, but all three have mentioned that this week has heightened value. Bielema has mentioned those three for special seasons – along with Cook on offense – several times this season. The Hogs want to send them out right. Sophomore running back Alex Collins said, “That's our focus this week, making it a great day for our seniors.”
4, Success – Can the Hogs deal with success? That sounds strange, but it's been a long time since the Hogs were coming off an SEC victory. Can they deal with it? Cook said it's as simple as sticking with Bret Bielema's 1-0 mentality. You put the losses behind you each Sunday, move on, Cook said. That's what the Hogs said they did Sunday with the victory. Secondary coach Clay Jennings said, “What we want now is a winning streak. That's what we want to be associated with going forward, winning streaks.” The Hogs say they are still hungry for more. Will they still fight like a hungry dog, something Trey Flowers said was the case in recent weeks. How hungry are these Hogs?
5, The Fruits – Ole Miss fell out of SEC West contention with back-to-back losses to LSU and Auburn. They had a laugher with Presbyterian and an open week to lick those wounds. Then, they got the ultimate medicine, the Alabama victory over Mississippi State and two losses by Auburn to put the Rebels back in contention. They'll still need an Auburn victory over Alabama and then to beat State in the Egg Bowl. But the Rebels think they have a lot more to play for this week than they did last week when they were two games back of first place. Arkansas is playing for a bowl bid. At 5-5, they need to beat Ole Miss or Missouri to get to six wins. There is still a lot riding for both teams. The fruits of victory could be sweet.
6, Tight Ends – Arkansas has four in the game plan, considering Alex Voelzke helps in special teams. AJ Derby and Hunter Henry are listed as starters and Jeremy Sprinkle joins Voelzke as a key in special teams and does play in multiple TE sets. Ole Miss has a dandy in Evan Engram, a 227-pounder who is more of a wideout than traditional tight end. Bo Wallace will get him involved in vertical schemes when the Hogs are chasing the motion backs in the horizontal running game. Linebackers on both sides will be tested by the tight end games in each offense.
7, Wallace the Runner – The Ole Miss rushing game can deceive. No one has netted as much as 400 yards among the running backs. But the Hogs need to be ready for quarterback Bo Wallace as a runner. He's rushed a team high 97 times for 371 positive yards. He's rested after the last two weeks and ready for the stretch run. His net is only 233 after 138 yards in sacks are included, but he's a threat the Hogs have to account for in their run defense. On third down, he'll keep and sometimes right up the middle. Brooks Ellis will have to mirror Wallace and that makes it tough on the motion fakes to wide receivers and scat backs in the Ole Miss scheme.
8, Gifts – This could be turnover ratio, but that's already been covered elsewhere. The Hogs have done better of late at avoiding key penalties, but there were a couple of bad ones against LSU that had to be overcome. Ole Miss averages only 5.7 penalties a game and does not beat itself. The Hogs average 4.8, although there have been some ugly ones at times. Who gives an early Christmas present? That could be the key in the game and it might not be a turnover, but a penalty.
9, The Run Defense – In SEC play, more times than not, the defense that shuts down the run has been victorious. Both teams are really good in this department. Ole Miss allows just 3.4 yards per play on the ground. The Hogs allow just 3.8. Ole Miss nickel backs Mike Hilton and Tony Conner are the leading tacklers with 54 apiece. Outside linebacker Sederius Bryant is almost as good with 52. The common trait for those three is quickness. They'll come on a combination of blitzes, too. The Arkansas offense averages 232.9 per game. Ole Miss has given up 193 to Louisiana-Lafayette, 168 to Alabama, 264 to LSU and 248 to Auburn. Those last two came after losing their middle linebacker, Denzel Nkimdeche, out again this week.
10, The Eyes – This is mainly an Arkansas key, but it might work for Ole Miss, too. Can the Arkansas safeties keep their eyes focused on the right keys in the slick faking of Bo Wallace against the constant flow of mis-direction and motions? That is an even bigger key since the Hogs will be without starting free safety Rohan Gaines for the first half because of a targeting penalty against LSU. Secondary coach Clay Jennings said the Hogs will rotate three in the first half – Josh Liddell, Davyon McKinney and Kevin Richardson. Liddell is a true freshman and was first in when Gaines was ejected. Richardson is a 160-pound walk-on but has been effective as a third or fourth safety in third-down packages. Can the Hogs avoid the big plays with Gaines out? Will the safeties maintain proper eye control with keys? That's going to be the challenge against a good Ole Miss passing game.