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West Virginia Cooks up a new look at safety

MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — The first time Darwin Cook played safety, it didn't go well.

"I was excited," he said. "I really felt like I was going to be a good safety, but when I came here, it was a whole different ballgame."

Cook, a defensive end in high school, matched up against former West Virginia speedster Jock Sanders on his first play. Needless to say, the results weren't the best.

"He crossed me up real bad and broke both my ankles," Cook said.

Since then, it's gotten better — a lot better.

Cook has become an effective boundary safety in the Mountaineers' defense. The redshirt sophomore made a team-high 11 tackles in Saturday's victory against Norfolk State and was named the squad's Defensive Champion of the Week.

"He's made a really tough transition playing defensive end in high school," safeties coach Steve Dunlap said. "When he came here, he totally had no idea what it took to be a safety, but to his credit, he's worked extremely hard."

Cook did everything at Shaw High School in East Cleveland, Ohio — playing defensive end, wide receiver and punter. Dunlap said he attended a game in which Cook, who was attempting to punt, turned a bad snap into a 55-yard touchdown run. That kind of athleticism made the West Virginia coaches think Cook could become a solid safety.

But athleticism can take a player only so far. He came from a high school defense that didn't use assignments, but he's quickly mastering the preparation that he needs to be successful.

"The main thing that was hard to overcome was watching film and actually studying and actually having a defense that you actually had to know some assignments," he said.

After a redshirt season in 2009, he played in all 13 games last year, posting nine tackles and a fumble recovery. After Saturday's standout effort, he leads the team with 15 tackles this season.

Cook, a Browns fan, models his game after Steelers safety Troy Polamalu. He likes the aggressiveness that Polamalu plays with and tries to mimic that.

Just like Polamalu moves around in the Steelers' defense, Cook is used all over the field in West Virginia's 3-3-5 stack. The safeties are versatile and do everything from playing outside linebacker in run support to blitzing to covering receivers.

"When you see people moving around, it's usually our safeties," Dunlap said. "That's the fun part of coaching: We get to do a lot of things."

Cook said he's happy with his progress but knows there's room for improvement.

"It feels good," he said. "I really don't think about it much because I can't get complacent."

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