As schools’ academic years are wrapping up, last season’s juniors are about to become this season’s seniors, and with that comes extra responsibility and expectations. In the ACC, while there were plenty of players selected in the NFL Draft, the conference still returns a strong group of seniors — many of whom are set to make a strong impact in their final seasons of eligibility.
Over the next few weeks, we’ll be going team-by-team in the ACC to identify the “standout senior” that’s key to his respective squad, and why he’s so important. Think we should’ve featured another player, though? Feel free to weigh in with your own thoughts in the comments.
Duke’s resurgence through the first seven or eight weeks of the 2012 season was largely credited to the Blue Devils’ high-powered offense, but it was the defense that really made a huge difference. On the strength of Cockrell, in particular, Duke’s D was shutting down passing games and held all but two of their first eight opponents to 30 points or less. It was not a phenomenal effort by most program’s standards, but for Duke, it was a clear step in the right direction. The wheels would fall off in the second half of the season, to the tune of five straight losses and five straight opponents scoring 42 or more, which is why defense (and Cockrell in particular) is such an important factor going into 2013.
As a junior, Cockrell appeared to have “broken out” so to speak, becoming a force in short coverage, with gradual improvement defending the long pass. At the halfway point, he was averaging more than one defended pass per game, with four picks and a decent amount of tackles (34) for a cornerback. And then everything dropped off. Against the ACC’s best receivers the rest of the way, he’d defend just three more passes, and catch just one more interception. Obviously, the team’s drop-off isn’t entirely his fault, but now, as a team leader, the buck must stop at him. As head coach David Cutcliffe told the Duke Chronicle last month:
“Ross Cockrell is where everything starts. Right now, if we can stay healthy our starting three safeties are Dwayne Norman, Jeremy Cash and Corbin McCarthy. I really like the looks of that…. We can be more athletic than we have been in the secondary.”
And Cockrell knows it, too. If this team’s going to continue making bowl games, it’ll be because of improvement on the defensive end. As he also acknowledged to Duke Chronicle:
“We can’t give up explosive plays, and that’s where we struggled most as a defense,” Cockrell said. “Especially at critical times in the game, when it was a third down, and we really needed to get a stop or a critical drive and we needed to get a stop, we gave up a touchdown. Something just seemed to happen. We have some tweaks for our defense to try and limit those and protect ourselves deep to short.”
So with marching orders in hand, it’s now up to Cockrell to deliver. Can he take charge of this defense and make a significant impact for the full season? He’ll need to if the Blue Devils have any hope of returning to the postseason, as Cockrell’s surrounded by a lot of youth on both sides of the ball.