By Bob Hertzel
For the Times West Virginian
If there is any kind of defensive tradition that survived last season’s record meltdown, it was that West Virginia safeties continue to deliver Mountaineer devastation.
Over the years we have seen the likes of Barrett Green and Gary Thompkins, or Robert Sands or Vann Washington or Charles Emanuel, Shawn Hackett or Jahmile Addae, Mike Lorello or Charles Pugh or Eric Wicks bringing devastating blows over and over.
Last year, when any tackle was considered a major accomplishment, the ooohs and the aaaaahs came solely when freshman Karl Joseph and junior Darwin Cook, at the times he was on his game, would deliver their wicked blows.
Now the talk is of an improved defense, of a more experienced Joseph who as a freshman was a player earmarked for greatness, and of a more determined Cook, who knows it is now or never.
“There will be more than what we did last year,” Cook said last week when he met with the media. “I feel like I’ll be more into run stopping, more into the game and he’ll be the same way.”
Coach Dana Holgorsen feels the same way.
“The guys defensively that stand out are Cook and Joseph. Those guys are obviously returning starters that have played a bunch, and they have a lot of ability,” he said. “Cook looks totally different than a year ago. We like what we are seeing out of him.
“Karl Joseph has had a great offseason. He is bigger, he is faster, he is stronger and he is more comfortable in the system. Those guys look good.”
For whatever reason, perhaps because he took a brief legal misstep during the offseason or perhaps because Holgorsen wants to keep him from letting his freshman success go to his head, Joseph has been kept away from the media, leaving Cook to be a spokesman for the pair of them.
Asked what he thought when he first saw Joseph in action, Cook admitted he had never seen anything much like that.
“I thought, ‘Damn, that dude’s going to get his neck broken hitting people like that,’” Cook said. “Then, as I watched him, I saw that was really how he tackled all the time.”
It was the way Cook wanted to compete all the time, but he had some shaky moments a year ago.
There were times when he got himself into the coaches’ doghouse, times when they used other players instead of him.
He was lost in a lot of ways, just as were all the other players.
“It was schemes, but we had the attitude last year that — I just don’t know,” Cook said. “We just didn’t get it down. It’s not on the coaches or anything. It’s on us and the way we thought and the way we played.”
Now, with Keith Patterson taking over, with a different scheme, a different attitude, maybe he and Joseph can be big hitters in a big-time defense.
“I’ve been here five years,” he said. “I know when things are going in the right direction and I know when things are going in the wrong direction. I honestly feel now like we’re going in the right direction.”
Part of it will be that he and Joseph are going to provide the zing.
“We just have the attitude we’re the best. He feels like he’s the best. I feel like I’m the best and that’s what we carry onto the field. I hope it rubs off on everyone else,” Cook said.
Whatever Cook did right last year, and when he was right he was a force, he believes it came from watching Joseph perform.
True, it’s not supposed to be that way, the veteran player being inspired by the freshman, but this was a freshman chronologically only.
“As soon as he got in here he had an older mentality,” Cook said. “We hang out all the time. We bonded. I don’t see him as a freshman at all. It seems like he’s been here forever, not just one year.
“He was a big inspiration for me and he doesn’t even know it. Just the way he played, watching him on film, it pushed me, too, to play like that. I play off him and feed off him.”
Now the other players have to do the same.
If Joseph is going to lead, it will be by his actions, although it isn’t right to assume because he’s young he’s quiet.
“He ain’t quiet,” Cook said. “He’s coming out of his shell a little bit.”
Email Bob Hertzel at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @bhertzel.