On Nov. 30, 2013, during Miami (Fla.) Central’s Class 6A state playoff matchup with Palm Bay (Fla.) Heritage, Central running back Joseph Yearby went down with an injury above his left ankle. The senior screamed in agony as coaches ran to surround him. Through the pain, however, only one voice cut through: that of fellow Central tailback Dalvin Cook.
“Yearb, get up,” Cook told Yearby, who just finished his freshman season at Miami. Most players would have waited for a cart, but Yearby lifted himself, jogged to the sideline and even tried to warm up. It would later be revealed that Yearby suffered a fractured fibula. He had no business walking. Yet that’s the weight Cook’s voice carried with his teammates.
“I’ve never seen anything like it in my life,” Central offensive coordinator Alexander Snipes said. “If I didn’t show it to you on tape you’d think I’m lying. You’d say that’s impossible.”
The next game, against Daytona Beach (Fla.) Mainland, Cook wore Yearby’s No. 22 as Miami Central rolled to a 28-15 win to move into the state championship game against Armwood (Fla.) High. Cook then proceeded to run for 223 yards with four scores as Central won 52-7.
A year later Cook is preparing for the College Football Playoff as one of the most important players on the unbeaten Seminoles (13-0). Especially down the stretch, the true freshman emerged as a critical reason why the ‘Noles secured a Rose Bowl date with Oregon (12-1) on New Year's Day.
“Before the season I was telling people he was going to be a big star,” said Cook’s brother Deandre Burnett, a freshman guard on Miami’s basketball team. “I’m really just happy that he’s coming into his own and doing the things I expect and he expected of himself.”
Said an ACC assistant coach whose team lost to Florida State earlier this fall: “I say this kid wins the Heisman in the next couple years. I think he’s that good.”
Cook was used sparingly at the beginning of the 2014 season. He amassed a combined 25 carries in Florida State’s first five games, and worked to hone his pass-blocking skills until the coaching staff learned to trust him. He flashed a few glimpses of his immense potential -- his 19-yard touchdown scamper in a 56-41 win at NC State on Sept. 27, for example -- but largely bided his time behind senior Karlos Williams and sophomore Mario Pender.
It didn’t take long for him to climb up the depth chart. He carried 23 times for 122 yards with a score in a 38-20 win at Syracuse on Oct. 11, and broke out in a major way when the Seminoles needed him most. Florida State trailed Louisville 21-0 on Oct. 30, falling into a first-half hole that the team became notorious for in 2014. Yet it had climbed back to within 24-14 midway through the third quarter.
With just over six minutes remaining in the period, Cook took a handoff from quarterback Jameis Winston. The hole he was targeting closed quickly, as Louisville’s front seven got the best of Florida State’s offensive line. Instead of panicking, Cook bounced outside, found a glimmer of daylight and exploded for a 40-yard touchdown to cut the Cardinals’ lead to three.
“I don’t know how he got out of there,” Florida State redshirt senior offensive tackle Cam Erving said. “I just saw him break, a little flash and his dreads swinging out the back of his helmet. And it’s a touchdown.”
Cook would give the ‘Noles the lead for good in fourth quarter. He took a stretch play 38 yards to paydirt to put Florida State up 35-31, an advantage the team wouldn’t relinquish. He finished with nine carries for 110 yards.
To see Cook blow by defenders makes it easy to wonder why he wasn’t used more from the get-go. He made his first start against Georgia Tech in the ACC title game on Dec. 6 (Williams was out with a concussion) and took advantage: He rushed for 177 yards with a touchdown in a 37-35 victory. He needs just 95 yards against Oregon to surpass the 1,000-yard mark for the season.
“What Dalvin has is that elite level of speed that you see on Sundays,” Armwood coach Sean Callahan said. “Everything they say about Dalvin is true. I think his best years are still to come. It took Florida State half the season to figure out he’s their best running back. For me it would’ve been the first game. I would’ve just let him run.”
Florida State has a policy that first-year players don’t talk to the media, so Cook got his first exposure to that aspect of college athletics directly after the ACC championship. Cook won the game’s MVP award for his performance, and smiled broadly as he trotted to the podium flanked by two guys who are anything but shy: Winston and Seminoles head coach Jimbo Fisher.
Fisher’s opening statement consisted of 503 words. Cook said 145 in his entire postgame press conference. Though the freshman was soft-spoken, coaches and teammates believe he will be more than ready to step up when it’s his time to be a leader down the road.
“I think once Karlos Williams and those seniors step out and he becomes the guy on the offensive side of the ball, you’re going to see him be more vocal,” Miami Central head coach Roland Smith said. “You’re going to see him be more passionate. Right now he’s letting his playing do the talking, but by his sophomore year when he’s the man, he’s going to be the one pushing those guys to be the best they can be.”
After fall semester ended and Florida State let out for winter break, Cook returned to Miami. Central was set to face Armwood again in the Class 6A state title game on Dec. 13 and planned to board the buses to the stadium at 7:30 a.m.
No self-respecting college freshman wants to wake up at 6 a.m., much less when it’s not required. Still, Cook went to the school and addressed the team. He told players that the expectation at Central is to win championships. The team beat Armwood 24-10 to capture its third straight title, behind 199 yards from Cook’s cousin, running back Anthony Jones.
“The kid is a natural born leader,” former Central coach and current USF running backs coach Telly Lockette said of Cook. “When he speaks, everybody listens.”
Everyone will get a chance to see -- and hear -- Cook again soon, with Florida State a win away from a second straight national title game appearance. Heading into the Rose Bowl against Oregon, odds are the freshman from Miami will have something to say.