By Bob Hertzel
Times West Virginian
The last time Darwin Cook was on the playing field for the West Virginia Mountaineers, he was seen running 99 yards after recovering a goal-line fumble for the touchdown that turned the Orange Bowl into a 70-33 rout.
It was one of 28 Orange Bowl records set by WVU in the game, a record pulled off by what is really a most improbable player.
Cook certainly could have found himself heading down far different paths than college football.
Steve Dunlap, the veteran assistant coach who worked with Cook the past two seasons when he handled the safeties, knows that the escape Cook made from his neighborhood was far tougher than the one he made from that goal-line scrum after taking the ball out of the running back’s arms before he hit the ground.
“He went to Shaw High School in Cleveland,” Dunlap said, noting that it also was the school that gave the Mountaineers another pretty good defensive player by the name of Darryl Talley, who heads into the College Football Hall of Fame this year.
“There’s been a lot of great players to come out of there,” Dunlap continued. “It’s a rough, rough area, the east side of Cleveland.”
Dunlap’s description of it included “a lot of boarded-up crack houses” and the like, although his former high school football coach Rodney Brown, in a recent article in a Cleveland area publication, indicated it might not be that bad at present.
“He’s a product of this community; he’s a product of the culture that has changed around here for the positive,” he said.
In fact, when Cook was asked in a magazine profile to name his favorite place to visit, he chose East Cleveland.
“Not Hawaii, not Paris, but East Cleveland,” his dad, Christopher, said in the article. “He comes home all the time, and I love it.”
It was proof that you are what you are and not what your environment would have others believe about you.
“He’s a single-parent kid,” Dunlap said, going back to his recruitment. “What I was told was he ate one meal a day ... he was 179 pounds when he came here.”
Skinny, quiet and fast, Cook seemed to have a lot going for him, but Dunlap just wasn’t sure.
“It was in the fall, the film out of there is not real good to evaluate kids on, so I went up there on Friday to see one of his games. That’s very unusual for a coach to do, to go up Friday night before a game, but he had run 10.6 100 meters,” Dunlap recalled.
“I watched half a game and he really impressed me. He played defensive end and wide receiver. They don’t have many coaches and it’s not very sophisticated.”
Defensive end? At 179 pounds and able to run a 10.6 100 meters?
“They said to me, ‘If the quarterback can’t throw the ball, we don’t need you in the secondary,’” he said.
They just told him to line up, put his hand on the ground and
go get the quarterback, something he did 21 times one year, 25 another. He was spending more time in the opponent’s backfield than the tailback.
And he did it savagely.
“I’m a head hunter,” he said, adding, “a head hunter with speed.”
That’s only part of it.
“He was the punter and believe it or not the center rolled it back to him and he fumbled it around, picked it up and looked and saw no one was rushing so he ran 54 yards untouched for the touchdown.
“I said to myself, ‘I’m not sure where this kid is going to play but he’s got a lot of potential,” Dunlap said.
He brought him into West Virginia and he has been a prize, about to enter his second year of starting as a redshirt junior.
He is a key player on the defense because he possesses experience, something this rebuilt and reshaped defense needs.
“He brings a little bit of a veteran to a defense that doesn’t have many. He can bring some leadership,” defensive coordinator Joe DeForest said. “He’s a quiet leader. He leads by example. He plays hard. He can bring something to the table that the young guys can see.”
Cook understands his role and even understands and accepts that the spotlight shines on the offense under Dana Holgorsen.
“West Virginia has always been built on defense,” he said. “I guess it’s time for them to get their shine. I’m not saying we’re going to back off, but we will shine, too.”
He especially likes the new defense that is being installed, since it is based on attacking the offense and forcing turnovers.
“We are going to surprise a lot of people,” he said of the defense.
Email Bob Hertzel at email@example.com. Follow on Twitter @bhertzel.