LAGUNA HILLS, Calif. — Months after leading Duke to the school’s first ACC Championship Game, their two-time defensive captain is prepping for May’s NFL Draft.
Cornerback Ross Cockrell, who is one class and a paper short of finishing his master’s degree in political science, opted to put those plans on hold while he feverishly trains for the bright lights and big stage of the NFL Scouting Combine.
“Just getting stronger and getting healthy,” Cockrell told FOXSports.com. “I want to make sure my body is in the best shape possible. Five years can kind of take a toll and after playing January 1, you want to make sure you’re as healthy and strong as possible. That’s what I’m focusing on.”
Cockrell got a glimpse of what next-level competition looks like when he played in the East-West Shrine Game in mid-January.
“I feel coming off East-West that I’m ready to play in the NFL,” Cockrell said. “I played against NFL talent while I was in college and I showed that I can excel against NFL talent at the East-West Shrine game.”
Cockrell, who measures in at 6-feet, 188 pounds, saved his best for last by intercepting a pass in the all-star game. While he plans on being the second player drafted from his school since 2004, he’s just glad Duke earned some national recognition this past season. When he arrived on campus in 2009, he alongside his teammates had to face some adversity.
As he rehabbed from ACL surgery, he spent his redshirt season taking mental reps and learning from the older guys. The next year he earned a starting job at cornerback and never looked back. While the team struggled posting 5-7 records in each of his first two years on the field, it was his redshirt junior year when the program made some noise. His teammates named him captain and he embraced the role as best possible.
“It was a learning experience for me in my first year being a captain,” Cockrell said. “I really had to learn how to lead and how to be an effective leader. I’ve always been a guy who led by example. The team, they started to look up to me.
“There are times during the season when things aren’t going our way and someone needs to step up and say something and to rally the troops or to call somebody out if they’re not doing the right thing. My second year as a captain, I thought I was much more effective having the trial run and getting to the bowl game.”
Cockrell began to organize nightly film sessions for his position group three times a week. It would include studying the opponent’s tendencies and finding small advantages. It’s that preparation, coupled with practice and workouts that led to success on the field.
The community and media attention swirled around the Duke Football program as they made their way to the ACC title game.
It wasn’t football all the time at Duke, either. Cockrell had to juggle a course-load of graduate-level classes in between those same workouts and practices.
“I’ve always been interested in our government and how it came together,” Cockrell said. “Not necessarily the politics, but how it was formed, how it’s structured and how it works, what started it in the 1700s, how it came to be and where it is today. Also what institutions come from our government like the bureaucracies and stuff like that.”
As well-rounded of a person Cockrell seems, he realizes that he will naturally be tested again in his leap to the next level.
“One of the biggest challenges is going to be my inexperience and getting over that,” Cockrell said. “I spent five years in college, so I got to know the college game pretty well.
“The NFL is going to be bigger, faster, stronger and I understand that.”