It started at an early age for Emanuel Cook.
At some point a very wise (or lucky) Pop Warner League football coach in south Florida told Cook to play linebacker, and a career was born.
The little kid grew up, though not enough to stay at linebacker. So when he arrived at South Carolina — after somehow escaping the clutches of three major programs in Florida — he was moved to safety. But his specialty never changed.
“That’s what I do: I tackle people,” Cook said.
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And the junior does it a lot. The Gamecock coaches would prefer someone else was their leading tackler, because it’s never a good sign when a safety is leading the way, but Cook has such a knack for finding the ball that it may be unavoidable.
In last week’s opener against N.C. State, Cook led the Gamecocks with nine tackles, all solo. The second-leading tackler had four.
That was just picking up where Cook left off last year when he led the team with 92 tackles. He did that despite missing the first game and most of the second after an appendectomy, which he returned from in two weeks.
Vanderbilt coach Bobby Johnson, whose team hosts USC on Thursday, said Cook might be one of the best tacklers he’s seen in college football.
“He does a form tackle every time he brings somebody down,” Johnson said Monday. “If somebody gets by their defensive line and linebackers, he seems to always be there for the big hit.”
That was a big part of what USC coaches saw when they scouted Cook at Palm Beach Gardens High. He was playing linebacker and running back, but being 5-foot-10 and just over 200 pounds, he projected as a safety. The Florida powers passed, and USC was the beneficiary.
“He’s got one of those noses for the ball,” USC secondary coach Ron Cooper said. “When he sees it, he picks up an extra gear of speed.”
Cook also has a flair for the big hit. In last year’s game at Arkansas, he thumped tailback Darren McFadden hard enough to cause a fumble, and while Arkansas recovered, McFadden had to go to the sideline.
“And I guess Emanuel Cook made him mad too, because he came out and put 322 yards on us,” Gamecock cornerback Captain Munnerlyn said of the eventual Heisman Trophy runner-up.
Munnerlyn, the chatterbox of the secondary, agreed that Cook is his opposite: a soft-spoken player whose personality seems to change when he gets on the field. Cook doesn’t know why that is; it just is.
“I don’t know, there’s just something different about that field. It’s a different world,” he said. “You’ve got to be more physical, you’ve got to be more aggressive, you’ve got to get to that ball. You’ve got to be full speed, that’s what those coaches expect from you. So I try to come out and do it every week.”
Reach Emerson at (803) 771-8676.