In his four seasons as defensive backs coach at Wisconsin, Cooks helped develop 10 All-Big Ten Conference honorees, including three first-team selections.
"I a very short period of time, (Cooks) took over the defensive backs and turned them into a strength in their unit," Brian Kelly explained when introducing Cooks to the media. "I think their last bowl game (a 20 to 15 win over No. 15 Miami) in particular was evident in how well they played on the back end of their defense against a very skilled football team."
Cooks, a former all-Big Ten safety at Iowa, now has a very short period of time to aid new defensive coordinator Paul Diaco, defensive line coach Mike Elston, and defensive backs coach Chuck Martin in the reformation and rebirth of the Irish defense.
Notably, to ease the transition from a 4-3 look back to a 3-4 alignment.
"A couple of things come to mind," Cooks said of his upcoming off-season preparation, "and one is making sure that as a coaching staff, we're on the same page. It'll be a new defense for me and Coach Martin – we both have a background in 4-3 defenses – so we'll study the nuances of the 3-4 and what that requires per position."
Below is a look at how the Irish have fared over the years as new coordinators and coaches have jockeyed between the two schemes.
Perpetual Change: the 3-4; the 4-3; and Points AllowedAsk an Irish fan from previous eras what defined each head coach or time span and you'll likely receive across-the-board answers on the offensive side of scrimmage.
Lou Holtz employed a base option look; Gerry Faust offered the infamous four P's ("Pinkett, Pinkett, Pass, and Punt"); Charlie Weis a pro-style passing attack; Tyrone Willingham featured the West Coast Offense (sure it was a bastardized, ineffective version, but hey, we all knew its moniker).
Ask those same fans about the team's defensive mindset and/or alignment over that span and you'll draw more pause and blank stares than reminiscence of the era.
In 1981, ex-Irish head man Gerry Faust debuted with a 4-3 defensive set and kept the alignment for three seasons before switching to a 3-4 in his final two seasons at the helm ('84 and '85).
In '83, Faust's defensive coordinator, the late Jim Johnson, produced the nation's No. 13 scoring defense. The switch to Andy Christoff and the 4-3 resulted in a five-point-per game increase and No. 42 ranking in points allowed.
The Holtz Era: Lou Holtz's 1986 Irish stayed the course, employing a version of the 3-4 from his first season through 1990, producing defenses that ranked 44, 21, 3, and 12th nationally in points allowed, before bottoming out as the No. 50-ranked scoring defense in the near-title season of '90 under new defensive coordinator Gary Darnell. (The '90 Irish had lost a manageable five starters from the nation's 12th ranked defense of '89, but each were NFL draft picks including three from the secondary.)
In 1991, the defense saw eight new faces and would be without the services of three All Americans in Chris Zorich, Michael Stonebreaker, and Todd Lyght. Darnell remained on board as did, at first, the 3-4 defense, though youth worked its way through the ranks and with it, an eventual emphasis on the 4-3 alignment (reminiscent of 2008).
The team's seven first-time regulars finished close to where they started…53rd nationally en route to a 10-3 season and Sugar Bowl win over Florida (Darnell's previous employer).
The '92 season brought a change in coordinators and focus on a true 4-3 scheme, as Rick Minter inherited a junior-laden and supremely talented front four and defensive backfield that produced the nation's 20th best scoring defense (in consecutive seasons).
Thanks to his 21-2-1 record as coordinator, Minter earned the head coaching job at Cincinnati and highly sought-after Texas A&M defensive coordinator joined the Irish staff for the '94 season. Davie brought the 3-4 alignment back for his three seasons as coordinator, finishing No. 37, 33, and 14 nationally. He kept the 3-4 look for the first two seasons of his head coaching tenure (finishing 51st and then 27th overall in points allowed).
Changing with the times: Beginning in 1999, Davie and (incumbent) defensive coordinator Greg Mattison switched back to the 4-3, limping to the 78th ranked scoring defense in '99, but improving through Davie's final two seasons on the job, finish No. 22 overall in 2000 (a 9-3 BCS season) and at No. 22 overall for the 5-6 Irish of 2001 (a team bereft of any semblance of an offense).
In 2002, new coach Tyrone Willingham and defensive coordinator Kent Baer wisely kept the 4-3 look intact, finishing No. 9 overall in points allowed – the team's highest ranking since the championship season of 1988 – before falling to No. 65 and regrouping at No. 46 in Willingham's last season at the helm.
Charlie Weis hired Rick Minter for his second shift in South Bend, and the 4-3 based Irish finished No. 53 and No. 67 in points allowed in '05 and '06 before Minter was replaced by Corwin Brown…and a return to the base 3-4 in 2007. Brown's defense finished 72nd (despite great detriment imposed by the team's offense) before improving to No. 42 nationally with the addition of Jon Tenuta to the defensive brain trust.
Last year, the Irish made what was to be a seamless switch to the 4-3 base, but allowed more than 25 points per game, good for 63rd nationally, in what should be the last 4-3 defensive season in South Bend's foreseeable future.
Click here for Part II of "Continuity is Key."