Defensive backs take leading role for invigorated Mountaineers defense

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MORGANTOWN, W.Va. -- It's about time West Virginia was known as a safety school.

Darwin Cook and Karl Joseph, safeties dubbed "Cookie Monster" and "Crazy 8," headline a revitalized Mountaineers defense that was among Division I-A's worst a year ago.

Cook and Joseph, a redshirt senior and sophomore, have accounted for four of West Virginia's five takeaways through the first two weeks of the season, and they kept the Mountaineers afloat with three red zone takeaways (two interceptions and a fumble recovery) in a 16-7 loss Saturday to No. 16 Oklahoma.

"They're what kept us in the game," said safeties coach Tony Gibson.

Early in the second half, Cook, his back to the goal line, baited Sooners redshirt freshman quarterback Trevor Knight with a quick step to the outside then doubled back and leapt to snare Knight's would-be touchdown pass -- a "rookie mistake" by Knight, Cook would later say, that resulted in a spectacular interception.

"I didn't know my daddy gave me that much DNA, man," a happy-go-lucky Cook said with a grin Tuesday. "I didn't know I could jump like that."

It was Cook's second interception of the season, already one more than he had in 2012 and matching his career high. He is the Mountaineers' second-leading tackler and is credited with three takeaways.

And about that Cookie Monster nickname? Well, it's something Cook made up for himself in 2012, and it's finally "starting to get catchy." Cook took grief from teammates and opponents alike for the nickname a year ago.

"Cookie Monster?" he remembers hearing. "More like Cookie Jar."

He credits the turnaround, in part, to a renewed focus that includes meditating before games.

Sweeping improvements have upgraded a West Virginia's secondary that was the laughingstock of the Big 12 Conference in 2012, allowing 312.8 passing yards per game and 38 touchdowns.

Through two games this season, the defense is allowing 163.0 passing yards per game and has more interceptions (three) than touchdown receptions against (two). Still, even the 16.5 points allowed per game haven't been enough to carry the West Virginia offense.

Cook called it a role reversal.

"I know the offense was probably thinking the same thing about us last year, that they'd have to put up 75 points to just get a tie or something," Cook said. "I've been on both sides."

The curious chemistry of the safety tandem of Cook and Joseph -- the only defensive players who haven't missed a snap this season, according to Gibson -- is that while they start at different positions, they are fiercely competitive. Not with their backups, but with each other.

"They both want to be great," Gibson said. "One pushes the other. You can see them elevate each other's games; they want to outdo each other, and that's a good thing."

"There's just so much competition between me and him," Cook said. "I see him make a play out there and know I've got to make a play. We just feed off each other. We've both got a killer instinct."

Nicknames, takeaways and daddy's DNA -- they're part of what keep Cookie Monster and Crazy 8 loose, and what will keep Big 12 quarterbacks leery of looking over the middle.

But Cook was quick to temper the gridiron hyperbole.

"It means nothing," Cook said, "if we stink up the joint against Georgia State."

wvusports

Stephen J. Nesbitt: snesbitt@post-gazette.com, 412-290-2183 and Twitter @stephenjnesbitt.


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