In every recruiting class, there are always a handful of players who stand out early -- often as quickly as their first fall on the practice field. Whether it's a running back with shifty moves or a defender that lights up the practice field with big hits, every August features a group that catches the eyes of coaches and observers.
"No one is talking about the Cook kid, but he's doing some good things," the veteran coach said after one early practice.
Dunlap wasn't predicting immediate playing time or stardom for Cook, but it was clear he liked what he saw from the Ohio native. And while Cook did redshirt during his first year on campus in 2009, he is clearly on his way to fulfilling the optimism Dunlap expressed.
The path wasn't an easy one. Along with the normal transition pains that all high schoolers endure when they move up to the collegiate level, Cook also had to learn how to play defensive football, and do so while learning a new position to boot. At Shaw High School in Cleveland, coaches used him as a defensive end with one assignment -- seek and destroy the ballcarrier. Unleashed, Cook rushed the quarterback, chased down runners and earned college scholarship offers -- all without knowing a great deal about the fundamentals of defensive play.
When he arrived at West Virginia, his gifts were immediately evident. He flew around the field and made an impact with crushing hits, but it was clear he wasn't ready yet to get on the field. He needed to learn those fundamentals, and also learn the assignments of the bandit safety spot.
"You have to have the fundamentals before you start out," Cook said. "I never dropped back or did any of that in high school. I had to learn all of those things first."
Once he began mastering those individual skills, Cook turned to an even bigger challenge -- learning to read plays and play within the scheme of the defense.
"It's been a big adjustment playing in a system," Cook explained. "If you look on film now, I'm totally different. I was stiff then. Last year I was more just going with the flow. The biggest difference for me this year was learning the formation, identifying plays and knowing them before they happen. Now, with knowing the defense, I can look at the whole set, and it helps me a lot. I'm learning now from all the guys, the safeties and the corners like Terence Garvin and Keith Tandy. I felt like we jelled over the spring, and that made a big difference."
"Learning the defense" is a short phrase that covers a lot of ground. Knowing where to line up is just the first step in a process than includes making adjustments against offensive changes, disguising coverages, and reacting quickly. Cook also describes another step that extends beyond knowing just his own assignments.
"You have to learn the defense, not just play it," he said. "You have to learn everything, not just what you do, because the defense plays off each other. Sometimes the bandit might do what the will linebacker does. It's just the whole thing. You have to learn what all the cornerbacks, the safeties, everyone is doing."
That process isn't a short one. Even with his physical talents and nose for the ball, it's still taken Cook two years and two spring sessions to get where he is. That location is pretty good considering his background and the learning he has had to do since arriving at WVU, but he also knows that he's not done in putting everything together.
"I feel like I'm making good progress in doing that," he evaluated "I'm learning from the guys, and I'm feeling good about where I am."
Cook was a contributor a year ago, making nine tackles while playing in all 13 games as a redshirt freshman. He played on the kickoff coverage team and saw substantial action as a backup against UNLV and Coastal Carolina, but now is ready for much more. After playing approximately 60 defensive snaps a year ago, he expects to be on the field much more often as part of a rebuilt defensive unit that hopes to approach the success of last year's squad, which finished third in the nation in total defense.
"I've set a goal for myself for starting this year," he said, "and doing everything I can to help the team."