By Bob Hertzel
For the Times West Virginian
Darwin Cook remembers when.
He remembers before West Virginia University was giving up 38 points a game on defense, back before the Mountaineers gave up 50 points in four different games in a single season.
As a senior bandit safety, he saw better days, and he has noticed a big change from last year on the defensive side of the football, as well he should, considering the coaching staff has made big changes, including promoting Keith Patterson to coordinator and bringing in Tony Gibson, a former Rich Rodriguez assistant, to coach the safeties.
“It’s getting back to what we were before,” he said.
Cook isn’t quite sure what it is, but there is a real difference, he says.
“It just feels a little different, no discredit to last year. We worked hard last year, too, but it feels different,” is the way he put it. “It’s everything about the program now is the way it is supposed to be. I feel like it’s going in the right direction.”
It’s difficult to put into words what transpired on defense a year ago. West Virginia has always had a proud defensive tradition and that was destroyed in the season the school moved into the Big 12, a league known for its offense.
It was embarrassing to look at, so you can only imagine what it was like to be one of those out on the field going through it.
“It was real tough. I didn’t even watch TV. After the second game, they were talking about the offense all the time and about how bad the defense was,” Cook said. “Then we hit the slump. I didn’t want to watch TV then. I didn’t watch SportsCenter for like three months.”
It was with the defenders no matter where they went, what they did.
“It’s in the back of my mind, every day, every second. When I’m in class, when I come to the stadium. It has to be in the back of your mind for motivation,” Cook said.
But now, with a change in the coaching approach and in the schemes, things seem different, more than just as they do with the rebirth that comes to a football team every spring when everyone says everything is good.
“Everybody says this is comfortable; this is new; this is fresh,” Cook said. “Honestly, being here five years, I know when things are going right. I know when they are going in the right direction and when they are going in the wrong direction.
“I feel like they are going in the right direction this year. I just feel it. It’s the young guys getting older and us coming together as a group. It’s us being disciplined this year. Discipline is the key.”
Discipline is a word that works in two directions. It is coaches disciplining players and players playing with discipline, which may be more important.
“It isn’t talent. It’s about discipline,” Cook said. “You have to be in the right place, in the right hole. That’s what defense is about.”
And when you aren’t disciplined? What does that look like?
“Oh, my God, there are big holes, big gaps, big plays … you saw it last year — every Saturday. We were terrible,” Cook answered.
The coaches tried to create discipline on the field by disciplining players, but it didn’t work.
“We were yelled at. We were disciplined. They tried their best to discipline us, but we did not take the discipline. It was on us, basically,” Cook said.
Things have now changed.
“It’s similar to the coaching staff two years ago. There are similarities the way they talk,” Cook said. “With Coach (Tony) Gibson you get a little bit of the talk like Coach (Jeff) Casteel, and that gives me a laugh now and then because you know he’s going to snap one of these times in the meeting room. It might be tomorrow morning at 7:30 a.m. I’m looking forward to that.”
Intensity, it is.
Oh, there was the necessary yelling last year, but they never could get the point across to a young defense that either was overmatched or undercoached or both.
Keith Patterson’s approach has changed from a year ago and that is making a difference.
“Patterson is definitely more vocal since last year … good or bad; however, you want to take it,” linebacker Isaiah Bruce noted. “I take it as a coaching experience. If he’s yelling at me or congratulating me, he’s trying to help me. Move on. He’s all about playing the next play and getting better.”
Getting better is what the whole spring is about for the defense.
Putting last year behind is the ultimate goal.
“Words can’t explain how much I want to get out there,” Cook said. “Man, last year we were picked to be first in the Big 12; now we are picked to be last. We aren’t going to do any talking. We’re just going to wait until the first game and show everybody.”
Email Bob Hertzel at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter @bhertzel.