DURHAM — There have been a lot of plays this season that have demonstrated how far Dukes Ross Cockrell has come since his freshman year.
Heading into Saturdays game against UNC, the Duke cornerback is in the top 15 nationally in interceptions (four) and total passes defended per game (Cockrell has broken up the pass or made an interception 13 times).
As far as the juniors development, the sequence that stands out to defensive backs coach Derek Jones is the interception Cockrell made early in the fourth quarter of the Blue Devils 42-17 win over Virginia on Oct. 6.
Cockrell was in press coverage but read the play and realized Virginia had a mismatch on a Duke linebacker with a running back coming out of the backfield. Cockrell broke off his coverage to make the interception.
He knew the ball wasnt coming to his guy, so he just looked to help, Jones said. Thats just understanding the football game.
Its a level of insight that took Cockrell time to develop.
Thrown into the deep end of the pool for much of his freshman season, the Waxhaw native sank as much as he swam. Cockrell started all 12 games, and during one his second career college contest Wake Forest receiver Chris Givens told Cockrell he wasnt good, as much out of sympathy as malice.
Jones described Cockrells play as timid that season, and Cockrell said he was neither confident in his technique nor sure of where he should be on many plays.
Coming into his sophomore season, Cockrell was determined not to be the cornerback opposing quarterbacks picked on. He spent hours in the film room learning the nuances of Dukes defense and had something of an epiphany during the Blue Devils opener against Richmond.
I realized against Richmond that to be a good corner, you had to challenge the receiver; you cant just sit back, Cockrell said. When I made that decision, it was probably the turning point for me.
The results werent immediate in the sense Cockrell started intercepting pass after pass (he had one last year). But opposing receivers no longer were taking pity on him.
With his confidence growing, Cockrell spoke up more frequently in team meetings and in huddles. This season, he was the only junior voted team captain.
Cockrell has backed up his leadership position by being as dependable a player as any on a defense that has been decimated by injuries. Cockrell had two interceptions against N.C. Central, including one returned for a touchdown, and also picked off passes against Stanford and Virginia (the interception vs. Stanford came after injuries forced him to play the safety position).
His personal highlight came when he returned a blocked field goal for a touchdown against Florida International.
"Just seeing how excited the team was and how the defense got out there and blocked for me -- just the whole team aspect of it was great," Cockrell said.
With his progression mirroring that of the program Duke went 3-9 both his freshman and sophomore seasons Cockrell wants to make sure he helps the Blue Devils realize the vision of coach David Cutcliffe.
When he recruited me, he told me the story about Duke and the rise of Duke, Cockrell said. I believe in that. Thats what were trying to do this year.
A win Saturday would make the Blue Devils bowl eligible for the first time since the 1994 season. It would also snap an eight-game losing streak against the Tar Heels. Duke hasnt beaten UNC in Wallace Wade Stadium since 1988.
It would mean everything, said Cockrell, who played high school football at Charlotte Latin and was not recruited by UNC. It would be our sixth win; wed be bowl eligible for the first time in a long time. Wed get to ring that Victory Bell. Just a lot of things that havent been done around here in a long time were going to attempt to do here on Saturday.
Thats really what this season is about -- its about change, and its about Coach Cuts dream.