October 17, 2007

Cook turning into a tackling machine

Emanuel Cook saw the ball zipping toward him and the green grass in front of him.

All he had to do was catch the ball and he'd have an easy touchdown. In football parlance, it's called a Pick-6.

He dropped it.

Ever since that fateful moment early in the second half of South Carolina's lone loss this season, a 28-16 decision at LSU, Cook, the Gamecocks' starting strong safety, has worked hard in practice at securing the football when he had the opportunity.

Cook knows he failed to make a play at LSU when he had the chance to turn the momentum around. Ever since, he's made sure it wouldn't happen again.

"I've been thinking about that ever since it happened," Cook said. "I've been working on ball drills after practice. I think my hands are improving. I'm getting better at that."

Cook's hard work paid off last Saturday afternoon when he intercepted his first two passes of the season in USC's 21-15 victory over North Carolina.

He ignored a nagging thigh bruise to turn in one of the best performances of his career. Cook had to take on more responsibility with the absences of Carlos Thomas and Stoney Woodson, both of whom missed the UNC game with injuries.

"We had a lot of people injured," Cook said. "I think it wore on us a little bit. Our team is well conditioned and works hard. I just think it took a toll on us."

His first interception came on the next-to-last play of the first half, while the second thwarted a potential UNC scoring drive in the fourth quarter.

Intercepting passes, though, takes a back seat compared to what Cook does best - bringing down opposing ballcarriers.

Despite being sidelined for the season opener and playing just a part-time role in the second game after undergoing an appendectomy, Cook leads USC with an astounding 46 tackles, including 36 solo stops.

Cook has led USC in tackles four of the past five games, including last Saturday when he had nine tackles in addition to the two interceptions against UNC. Cook will occasionally slide down to line up at linebacker.

"I'm just doing my job," Cook said. "I try to compete every game. I've been tackling ever since Pop Warner. I've been playing linebacker ever since then."

Cook is averaging 8.6 tackles over the last five games. His season high of 11 tackles came in the loss at LSU. Three weeks ago, he made one of the biggest stops in the Mississippi State game when he tackled the MSU ballcarrier behind the line of scrimmage on a fourth down play.

"Emanuel Cook is naturally a strong kid. He was born with some strength and he works hard in the weight room also," USC head coach Steve Spurrier said. "He's a sure tackler, he hustles and he plays his assignment. Now he's picking off some passes here and there. He and (defensive end Eric) Norwood seem to make most of the plays."

Last season, Cook finished third on the team with 47 tackles as a true freshman despite missing three games with a left knee sprain. It was good enough to earn Freshman All-SEC honors.

While an excellent tackler, Cook acknowledges he must improve his cover skills in the passing game.

"That's one thing I'm really trying to work on," Cook said. "(UNC) got me on one play. I bit on a corner route and they throw a post route right down the middle. The receiver dropped it. That really got to me."

With USC sitting at No. 6 in the BCS standings, as well as atop the SEC East standings, friends and family in his hometown of Riviera Beach, Fla. have been calling Cook regularly to offer congratulations.

Most of them say the same thing - they're happy he didn't sign with struggling Miami, Cook's favorite team growing up in south Florida.

"A lot of friends and people have been calling me, telling me that I'm doing a good job and everything," Cook said. "They say the team is looking good."

Although Cook was the Class 6A Player of the Year in the Sunshine State, none of the so-called "Big Three" schools offered him a scholarship. As a result, his boyhood dream of playing for the Hurricanes was dashed.

But Cook is getting the last laugh.

"It doesn't bother me anymore. It used to bother me why I didn't get a chance to play at home (for Miami)," Cook said. "Now I don't even care. I'm extremely happy. We're No. 6 in the country. Where's Miami now?"

Today, with USC among the nation's elite, Cook is thankful for his good fortune, and looking forward to a strong finish by the Gamecocks

"It means a lot to be number six. We can't slip up or take a step back," Cook said. "We definitely have to go out there and take care of business and finish it off."

Cook realizes the USC secondary didn't play well in the latter stages of last Saturday's victory over North Carolina. He's looking for a full 60-minute effort from the Gamecock defensive backs when they take on Vanderbilt Saturday at 12:30 p.m.

"We have a chance to win it all here, but we just have to take it one step at a time, one game at a time," Cook said. "Everybody's serious and we play hard. We have to play four quarters all the way through and don't slip up like last week. We got exploited a little bit last week. We have to step it up this week."

In addition to striving to improve on the football field, Cook is making gains off the field, as well. Cook was arrested on a gun charge in late August and spent a night in jail. He was briefly suspended from the university before being reinstated days later. The charge was later dismissed.

"I feel like I've been given another chance," Cook said. "I'm going to take full advantage of it every time I step on the field. I have to make up for a lot of things. I made a lot of people look bad."

Soon after his release, Cook suffered an attack of appendicitis and was rushed to Palmetto Richland Hospital, where he underwent an appendectomy. Within hours of leaving the hospital, Cook attended a hearing on his reinstatement to the university.

It has all made for a very hectic fall for Cook.

"It's been pretty crazy," Cook said. "But everything has turned out good. It's been a good season. I'm doing well in class."

Cook led Palm Beach Gardens High School to the 2005 Class 6A state championship by rushing for 2,027 yards and 27 touchdowns while spearheading the defense from his middle linebacker spot. He also played on special teams. Some games, he never came off the field.

"It's fun, I like being out there," Cook said. "It's exciting."

His recruitment boiled down to two schools - USC and N.C. State. His high school coach thought he would pick the Wolfpack. But Cook was impressed by the total football environment at USC, from the coaches to the facilities to the fan support to the game day atmosphere.

Cook admits he occasionally thinks about what he could have accomplished as a Division I running back.

"I miss it sometimes," Cook said. "When I'm watching, I'll say, 'Oh I could have made that cut.' I'd be joking around like that."

On the football field, though, Cook is all business. Just ask the opponents.

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