Cockrell providing guidance for young DBs

After a rocky early career, Duke senior has risen to all-conference level, but he still remembers the early days and is passing those memories along to his young teammates.

Ross Cockrell still remembers his college football debut.

"The first play against Elon, they went right at me," he said. "They ran a little slant, and it went for like 15 yards."

A 3-9 Duke team had serious depth problems in the defensive backfield, which meant that the freshman Cockrell was forced to start and play the majority of the snaps on defense.

It was a trial by fire, and Cockrell got burned plenty of times. In his second career game, Wake Forest receiver Chris Givens told him, "You're not very good," while padding his receiving numbers against the overmatched freshman.

The memories of his freshman experience are burned into Cockrell's mind.

"You get tired," Cockrell said. "The players are moving fast, so you're just like, ‘Man! This guy's fast!'

You're breathing hard. You're trying to look for the call. You're trying to think about where to line up, what kind of coverage you're going to play. So, there's a lot."

"And that goes on before every snap," Cockrell continued. "That can kind of get frustrating when you're a young player or just haven't been used to playing."

Now a senior, Cockrell again finds himself playing a position where the Blue Devils find themselves a little thin. This time, he's the elder statesman, while a trio of true freshman are going through the same experience he did, three years ago.

Three true freshmen—Breon Borders, Bryon Fields, and Deondre Singleton—saw playing time at cornerback in Duke's season opener against NC Central. Borders got an interception late in the game, the first time in recent memory that a true freshman has recorded a pick in his his college debut.

"I watched them close," coach David Cutcliffe said of his three freshmen corners. "They're easy to see back there. I thought they were where they were supposed to be. I thought they broke on the ball. They made plays: Breon made an interception. Singleton made a really nice tackle in the open field, which has been one of his fortes since he's been here."

Being in the right spot sounds simple, but Cockrell knows better. "It's hard, because the game's moving fast. The ball's moving from hash to hash. You're running those routes, going deep, jogging back and trying to get lined up. It is very difficult."

"If you can put yourself in the right position at the start of the snap, then you can put yourself in position to make the play," he continued. "But if you're already out of position before the ball has even been snapped, it's..." Cockrell paused to find the right word, scrolling through the times he was out of position during that long freshman year. "It's trouble," he concludes.

Cockrell had to learn from his mistakes as a freshman, while desperately treading water in the defensive backfield. A big reason that this year's crop of kid cornerbacks were able to make an immediate impact is that they also learned from Cockrell's mistakes.

"I showed them tape of me as a freshman," Cockrell said of his preseason work with the freshmen.

Even the Elon play and the Givens debacle?

"I showed them," Cockrell said. "I've got nothing to hide. I understand my freshman year didn't go exactly as I planned. Hopefully, their freshman years go better than mine."

Duke is a far more talented team than they were in 2010. Borders, Fields and Singleton have a lighter workload, and less weight on their shoulders, than Cockrell did. Borders played 32 snaps in the opener, the most of the trio of true freshmen. Fields played 27, and Singleton was on the field for 16.

Cockrell played 826 snaps as a rookie, an average of 69 plays a game.

"It definitely helps to play fewer snaps," Cockrell said. "It helps to maintain focus , maintain discipline, and maintain your technique all during the game. But whether they're out there 30 snaps or 50, they know what they have to do. We've talked about it extensively—how important discipline and technique are, and how quickly you can get beaten out there for a touchdown."

The easy narrative would be that Cockrell's confidence suffered from his early college experience, and that this year's kids are cocky and fearless. Not true, Cockrell argued.

"I was definitely confident," Cockrell said. "I was confident before every game that I was going to go in and have a great game. But during the course of the game, some things come up. Sometimes the guy's a little bit better than you. Sometimes you get lost in the shuffle."

Not only that, but Cockrell said that the idea that the freshmen corners are overconfident is also just not true.

"One of the great things about the young DBs is that they have hunger and a fire to compete," Cockrell said. "They're not brash. They're not cocky or in-your-face. They're humble. They want to learn. They're eager."

A big reason why is that they've seen what can happen to them. "Some DBs are going to be cocky and brash," Cockrell said. "But I think good corners are humble and understand that, at any moment, you can get beat on a play, even if you're in perfect position. Sometimes, there's no defense for good offense."

"I think showing them stuff from my freshman year humbles them even more," Cockrell added. "They took it in stride. You can coach off of anything—bad plays and good plays. I'm trying to coach off of bad plays."

Cockrell was impressed with the debut of his three protégés, but there's still room for improvement.

"They did good," he said. "Breon caught the interception. Bryon should have had two interceptions."

"They're just out there playing football," Cockrell said, "being young, being wild, and free out there."

Spoken by someone who never had that opportunity.


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