Cockrell leads Duke defensive backfield in many ways

lkeeley@newsobserver.comAugust 11, 2013 

— There isn’t a wealth of experience in Duke’s secondary. Just ask defensive backs coach Derek Jones about that.

“When I look in the meeting room, I just look like I see a bunch of guys in Pampers,” he said as he laughed. “They’re learning. I’ve got a couple in Pull-Ups, a couple in Pampers, and I’ve got one in shorts. That’s about it.”

That one in shorts would be senior Ross Cockrell, a Charlotte Latin graduate, reigning first-team all-ACC cornerback and Duke’s only returning starter in the defensive backfield. In three years, Cockrell has gone from overwhelmed redshirt freshman forced into action to senior leader and de-facto assistant coach.

Cockrell took the lead for the defensive backs in player-led summer workout drills, which began in May. Monday through Friday, the Blue Devils worked, lifting weights three days a week and running drills and installing coverage packages on the other two. When the freshmen arrived in late June, the workouts restarted from the beginning.

“He can be vocal, but he really does lead by example,” freshman cornerback Bryon Fields, who hails from Charlotte Providence Day, said of Cockrell. “Anytime you have questions, he’s great at explaining things and making it very clear what you’re supposed to do. He’s great at showing you what you’re supposed to do as well.”

Cockrell even reviewed snippets of game film from last year with the freshmen and underclassmen in attempt to best prepare them for fall camp. And when the preseason arrived, Jones was able to move through installations faster thanks to the work Cockrell had done with the group this summer.

“What Ross brings to the table is a lot of what we lacked when we first got to Duke,” Jones said. “You have to have a person to be assertive, and you have to have a person to be demanding when the coaches aren’t around. You have to have a person in the weight room that takes the lead. You have to have a person in the locker room that takes the lead, that makes sure things are clean and done the right way and to be the coach’s voice.”

Sophomores Dwayne Norman and Jeremy Cash, along with redshirt freshmen Corbin McCarthy, are slated to start at Duke’s three safety spots. At corner, early enrollee Evrett Edwards and redshirt freshman DeVon Edwards are listed as backups to Cockrell and first-time starter Garrett Patterson, a senior. And true freshman cornerback Breon Borders stands out among a handful of secondary newcomers who could earn playing time.

“It’s a lot of new faces,” Cockrell said. “But there’s a lot of talent, too. I’m excited about that. Guys are competing. Everybody knows that positions are open, and guys are going after it.

“I was fortunate enough to have a redshirt year, which helped a little bit, but there’s nothing like being in the fire, I’ll tell you that.”

Cockrell’s main advice to his protégées is to focus on refining their technique. Gone are the high school days when players could get by on talent alone. At the college level, everyone is fast and everyone can jump, Cockrell said, so technique and discipline separate good players from averages ones and great players from good ones.

Jones and the coaching staff also simplified the calls and coverage schemes, boiling it down to simplest terms: keep everything in front and inside. Look for more zone, too, as opposed to leaving the young guys on islands by themselves.

Cockrell is capable of defending a receiver 1-on-1, which is ideal in Duke’s 4-2-5 scheme. The coaching staff is hoping he can stay at his natural position instead of moving into one of the three safety spots (he knows them all), and, if the Blue Devils stay healthy, that’s what will happen. Cockrell hasn’t spent any time at safety so far this camp, as his health is a top priority. There’s a secondary benefit to that approach as well.

“I haven’t had him doing anything but corner because I need him when he’s not on the field to coach the other side for me a lot of times,” Jones said. “Having young guys like that, it takes a lot of my attention.

“(Friday) at practice I just stepped off to the side with him and gave him my thoughts on the young guys, and what I was thinking and told him was that he was dead on,” Jones added. “We can’t work with those guys in the offseason, so you sit in here as a coach and wonder how those guys are looking out there. And Ross is the guy that gives me the report. I was telling him, ‘you were dead on.’ ”

Cockrell and Jones fully expect opponents to test the young secondary early. Nothing can replace game experience, Cockrell said, but he and the staff have done their best to simulate it in practice.

“I know our first two games they’re probably going to try to air it out and see what we’re made of,” Cockrell said. “We’ll be ready for that.”

Keeley 919-829-4556; Twitter @laurakeeley

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