College Sports

Cook's past is history

Jared Cook, right, had to be consoled by Freddie Brown after a dropped touchdown against Auburn last season.
Jared Cook, right, had to be consoled by Freddie Brown after a dropped touchdown against Auburn last season.

COLUMBIA -- Jared Cook says he never thinks about it, the play that's defined his still-fledgling college career.

But using the memory to make himself better, to keep giving himself the shot to make another defining play -- that's another story.

"I was young," he said, still dripping sweat from practice earlier this week. "Just got to learn from it, roll with the punches. Bad situation's going to occur in the game ... it's just how you shake them off and come back from them that really matters."

South Carolina hosted No. 2 Auburn last year on an ESPN Thursday telecast, beaming a potential upset across the country. The dogged Gamecocks were hanging with the Tigers, down 24-17 with the ball and five minutes to go.

Syvelle Newton drove USC to the Tigers' red zone and with under three minutes to play, took the snap. There was Cook, the big freshman with loads of potential, on his route when suddenly, there was no one around him.

He was so open he could have pitched a tent on the 5-yard-line. Newton threw right between the two numbers on Cook's chest and Cook stretched out his hands to gather it in, the Williams-Brice Stadium crowd rising and about to roar for the game-tying touchdown.

Cook dropped it. The ball hit him in stride, right in the hands, with nobody around.

And he dropped it.

The Gamecocks still had a chance to tie the game, but a fourth-down fade to Sidney Rice in the corner of the end zone was incomplete. Auburn ran out the clock and celebrated the win.

Cook remained on the bench as the rest of the Gamecocks trudged to the locker room, staring at the ground as Freddie Brown sat beside him, trying to find the right words to say. Even though Cook finished the year with some solid games, it was that one miss that always came up when his name was mentioned.

There was really only one choice to make. He could let the drop hound him into forfeiting the rest of his career, or he could work to make sure it never happened again.

Guess which one he chose.

Heading into the No. 7 Gamecocks' seventh game, Cook is the team's leading receiver not named Kenny McKinley or playing tailback. He's got 12 catches for 201 yards (16.75 per) and although he hasn't crossed the goal line yet, he's becoming a primary option.

As the passing game has struggled this season, Cook has become a weapon. Lined up at tight end but possessing receiver speed (he ran a 4.37 in the 40-yard-dash in preseason camp, the best on the team until Carlos Thomas and Stoney Woodson clocked 4.35s), Cook has been catching his quarterback's eyes often.

"I think that's just the way it's opened up," he said. "It just depends on the game and the game situation. But I practice at tight end, I block in the games like I'm a tight end ... my feeling is I'm supposed to be a tight end."

He's becoming a very good tight end. Taking instruction from sixth-year senior Andy Boyd, the Gamecocks' starting tight end and best pass-blocker, Cook has developed into a hybrid slot receiver/extra lineman.

"Andy teaches me everything I need to know," Cook said. "He's always working with me, any questions I have, he's always patient. I kind of look up to him because he's a hard worker and he taught me everything."

Not that it's all perfect. Coach Steve Spurrier pointed out before the Gamecocks played Kentucky that Cook had done well, but not well enough.

"He's still got a ways to go," Spurrier said. "He needs to block a whole lot better, needs to run his routes a whole lot better. Now, he can catch and he can run -- he's got a lot of potential. We haven't got it out of him yet."

With that in mind, Cook is trying to improve each day. He's regretting a potential goal-line catch at LSU, where he leaped to snare a high pass from Blake Mitchell and was hit by what felt like a Sherman tank.

"It was kind of a jump ball behind me and I came back to get it, so one guy came and I had it and he knocked it out, then another guy came and hit me dead in the stomach," said Cook, who missed the rest of the game with a bruised sternum.

But at least he's getting the chance. Sooner or later, Cook will finally notch his second career touchdown -- ironically, the first was earlier in the game against Auburn.

He also got the chance to be a comforting shoulder when a similar situation happened against Kentucky last week. Freshman tight end Weslye Saunders caught a swing pass and rumbled downfield, 2 yards from the end zone, when a defender reached around and popped the ball loose.

The ball tumbled out of the end zone for a touchback, giving Saunders the hangdog expression of the month. Cook eased over to him on the sideline, telling him everything was OK and how to avoid it in the future.

"Like today in practice, I was working on holding it high and tight," Saunders said this week, looking over at Cook. "I might even dive (or) tuck it under my shirt. It's not going to happen again."

Cook smiled, proud he could impart something to the rookie. As for his missed opportunity last year, a fresh one's always just around the corner.

"Bad memory," he said, allowing himself a quick recollection of Auburn. "I can just be me, man. Because coach Spurrier has always wanted the tight ends to be really more involved. We got so many weapons, we got to use them."