Now, criticism is easy, expectations are raised, and negatives are pounced upon. At least Cooke has already developed a veteran’s perspective on the all-or-nothing life of a college kicker.
“As a freshman I was just trying to hit good balls and do my job when my number was called,” Cooke said. “Now I’m trying to up my level and be the best punter I can be, whatever that is.”
Notice Cooke is talking about punting. This signals a spring shift in Mississippi State specializing for 2015. The Bulldogs return a senior punter, after all. A good one too as Devon Bell averaged 43.2 yards on his 50 tries last season.
Yet here is kickoff man Cooke taking as many camp-turns as his elder. Often the first turns in drills and scrimmages, too. He’s no rookie in this area of course, with ten punts last fall for a 41.4 average. And it must be repeated, this is not a for-sure move by any means.
Cookie is pretty positive about his prospects, though.
“It’s going good,” he said. “I’m back punting pretty good and that’s something that I’ve really been trying to work on all spring, is getting back in good fundamentals. During the season I slacked a little bit on some fundamentals. Kickoffs, mainly the same deal. Spring is the time to get back on your good fundamentals and stuff.”
Along the ‘get back’ theme, Bell himself has gone back to placekicking. It’s a role he held in 2012 and ’13, with 20 three-pointers made in 35 tries. Bell also set a program record at the time with 43 PATs in the ’12 season. Then last fall he went to full-time punting and part-time kickoffs. Now he’s back to booting off a tee along with Westin Graves.
How that competition ends up for September is t.b.a. Cooke’s challenge is winning the punting job and holding his kickoff duty. He averaged 61.7 as a rookie but was at his best mid-season.
“Toward the end of last year, I don’t know if it was because it was my first season and my leg was getting dead a little bit and I was kind of getting a little short. But I’ve got back hitting it pretty good, so hopefully I can keep doing that.”
Actually Cooke wasn’t even supposed to kick it off; that was Bell’s job up until minutes before the Texas A&M game. A warm-up injury changed everything for Cooke, who was idly chatting on the sideline when Bell told him about a groin pull and to get ready.
“At first I was thinking Devon was being a big brother. And then Mullen came over there and said are you getting good and loose? I said…yeah. Now I figured it was real!”
It was. Cooke turned out really good, too, until wearing-down in November. He even got to take a swing at a 42-yard field goal at Kentucky, which sailed way off to the left though it had more than enough distance. Cooke said he is not in the placekicking competition. He does have a potential place on the team, though, as backup holder to quarterback Dak Prescott.
So for now he’s working on improving the punting. As in, raising the hang-time, lowering the get-off time, and perfecting foot placement. There’s something else to focus on this spring, putting himself right into the ‘block spot’. Not where the kick is blocked, but the gap between his two shield blockers. Mess that up a little to one side or the other…and bad things can happen.
This is also a reminder that judging camp kicking competition is not necessarily a numbers game. Fans and media watching the two scrimmages came away convinced Cooke has the edge on Bell based on raw distances. Maybe. Maybe not, Cooke said. Was the punt put where the coach directed? Did it hang high to allow coverage? Would a determined rush have gotten there first?
“So there’s so many factors that go into it, instead of just how far the ball goes.”
Cooke is also spending spring days working on an addition to his repertoire. “I’ve never really learned to kick the Aussie punt.” Not until now. Teams which can’t keep rush and return teams honest with the threat of a roll-out punt aren’t specialized enough these days. At the moment Cooke can only envy the real masters of that arcane art, who he said “can make the ball do a tango on the one-yard line.”
But he’s working on it. “It’s just technique. And reps and reps and reps of it.”
Maybe the best part of being a punter, any style, is this is a craft that can be practiced entirely solo if necessary. Though a helpful ball-boy can multiply opportunities, and a snapper is always welcome too. So Cooke will be taking alllll the reps his foot can handle in summer as he improves his skills for preseason competition with Bell and any new walk-ons or transfers.