INDIANAPOLIS The good news about Duke’s appearance in the Chick-fil-A Bowl on New Year’s Eve: The game against Texas A&M and 2012 Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel put the spotlight on the Blue Devils’ resurgent program.
The bad news: ESPN aired the second half.
Former Duke cornerback and Charlotte Latin standout Ross Cockrell said the 52-48 loss – in which the Blue Devils blew a 21-point halftime lead – still stings. Amid the second-half meltdown, Cockrell continued to play tough against Mike Evans, the Aggies’ All-American receiver.
“To go against a Heisman Trophy winner is a great experience,” Cockrell said Sunday at the NFL Scouting Combine. “I wish we would have won the game, but I think it made our team and our program better.
“It gave us a lot of exposure. People got to watch Duke football for the first time in a long time. And for me … the scouts and the NFL people got to see me for the first time.”
What they saw was a 6-foot, 191-pound corner who didn’t back down from a 6-5, 231-pound Evans. Cockrell’s tight coverage led to a pair of personal foul penalties on Evans during the first quarter.
With Cockrell on him most of the game, Evans caught four passes for 72 yards, but he was held without a touchdown in a game that featured 13 of them.
“We opened the game up with a few stops, held them to some field goals. In the second half we really needed to get a stop,” Cockrell said. “We didn’t get the stop that we needed to put our foot down and make our mark.”
Duke coach David Cutcliffe called Cockrell’s performance a “culmination game” for a player whose college career got off to a rocky start.
“Evans really wasn’t a factor,” Cutcliffe said. Cockrell “is just one of those rare people who knows how to call on his best when he needs his best. He’s done that his entire athletic career, whether it was at Latin or Duke.”
As a corner and receiver at Latin, Cockrell helped the school win a state title as a junior. But he tore two knee ligaments during his final game with the Hawks and redshirted as a freshman at Duke while rehabbing.
ACC quarterbacks picked on Cockrell his first two seasons as a starter. But as a junior, Cockrell led the conference with five interceptions and helped the Blue Devils earn their first bowl berth since 1994.
Cockrell finished his career with 12 interceptions and a school-record 41 pass breakups. He twice was voted a team captain and was pursing his master’s degree in political science before taking a break to prepare for the draft.
Cockrell gave thoughtful responses to a number of topical questions during his combine media session, on issues ranging from the possibility of the NFL penalizing players who use racial slurs to the efforts by Northwestern’s players to unionize.
Cutcliffe said Cockrell, whose father played football at Columbia, was well spoken during postgame interviews, as well.
“He was like a veteran of 30 years in the coaching profession as he answered questions,” Cutcliffe said. “Sometimes it’d be better for me to listen to what Ross has to say and then follow that up.”
Cockrell, a mid-round prospect, won’t get drafted on intelligence and eloquence alone.
He said scouts want him to improve his upper-body strength, so his showing during Tuesday’s pro bench press in Indianapolis could be key. Cockrell, who ran track at Latin, hopes to run the 40 in 4.4 seconds.
He said he has met with his hometown Panthers, who are looking to shore up their secondary. “I grew up watching the Panthers,” he said. “I think they have a very good team.”
Cutcliffe said whichever team drafts Cockrell will be getting a leader and a consistent corner who bounced back from his early struggles at Duke.
Adversity “kind of defines people, and it defines Ross. He never wavered,” Cutcliffe said. “I never saw Ross Cockrell over his head. That’s what it takes. Even for the greatest of the greatest, there’s moments you’re going to lose. And Ross never lost the edge.”
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