USC Football Spring Camp: Jamel Cook Grabs Starring Role

Defensive back Jamel Cook during USC Football practice at Howard Jones Field. (Alicia de Artola/Reign of Troy)
Defensive back Jamel Cook during USC Football practice at Howard Jones Field. (Alicia de Artola/Reign of Troy) /

Redshirt freshman Jamel Cook has been the breakout star of USC football spring camp 2017 after a position change to nickelback.

The surprise isn’t that Jamel Cook has launched himself into a starring role this spring. It’s that he’s doing so in a new position.

The redshirt freshman safety has shifted over to the nickelback spot, giving the Trojans a different dimension behind corner-nickel Ajene Harris.

At 6-foot-4, Cook isn’t exactly the player who’d been pegged to fill that role for USC. But coaches were delighted with his above-average coverage skills during the three weeks of practice ahead of the Rose Bowl and have since decided to try him out.

After the second week of spring practice, that decision seems to have paid off as USC looks for a viable replacement for standout safety-nickel Leon McQuay III. Cook fits the bill.

READ MORE: How Will USC Replace 11 Lost Starters in 2017

“His length in coverage is something that’s very hard for smaller receivers. He kind of engulfs them,” head coach Clay Helton said. “It’s hard to find a little wide out when he’s around.”

Cook’s size — he’s up from 181 to 195 pounds, with a goal of 210 — and athleticism make it ideal to put him close the line of scrimmage, whether as a blitzer or additional run support.

“He’s got a heavy head and he covers a lot of ground in a hurry,” Helton said.

The reasons for trying Cook at nickel are clear, but it’s a challenge for the young player and it’s early days still.

“The biggest thing is going to be his ability to absorb the playbook from both positions. He’s doing a pretty good job of it right now,” defensive backs coach Ronnie Bradford said.

Defensive back Jamel Cook during USC Football practice at Howard Jones Field. (Alicia de Artola/Reign of Troy)
Defensive back Jamel Cook during USC Football practice at Howard Jones Field. (Alicia de Artola/Reign of Troy) /

Trojan coaches like Helton and defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast echo that sentiment. Cook needs to build understanding and consistency at nickel, but through the second week of spring practice, he’s showing off a high ceiling when he hits the mark.

On Tuesday, Cook was a quarterback’s worst nightmare during 7-on-7. He picked off all three of USC’s scholarship QBs — Sam Darnold, Matt Fink and Jack Sears.

RELATED: Young Guns Star in USC’s First Spring Scrimmage

Thursday afforded Cook the chance to show off his brutality as a tackler, laying a pair of punishing hits during contact periods.

It might not have been as jaw-dropping a display, but it was one Cook preferred.

“I like tackling way better than picking off balls,” he said.

The flashes of brilliance have really excited us. Now we’ve got to get more assignment sound.

-Clay Helton

At Saturday’s scrimmage, Cook demonstrated a little bit of both. He intercepted a Fink pass in the end zone and laid the wood on receiver Tyler Vaughns.

“The flashes of brilliance have really excited us,” said Helton. “Now we’ve got to get more assignment sound.”

Safety Chris Hawkins believes that Cook has what it takes, physically and mentally to do the job for the Trojans.

“He may try to put off the signs like he’s a little bit behind the curve but he’s not,” Hawkins said of Cook’s ability to pick up the defense and his new role in it. “He’s smart. He’s very smart.”

In addition to being smart, Cook is driven. He believes he could have competed for playing time in 2016 if circumstances had been different.

He’s channeled the frustration of being sidelined into progress.

“Every day I came out here with anger,” Cook said.

RELATED: Which USC Freshmen Redshirted in 2016?

There were rumors, throughout the season and after, that a number of out-of-state players were considering the possibility of transferring back home.

Based out of Miami, Cook may have fit the profile. He broke his foot in a car accident the summer before his freshman season, derailing his chances of playing early. Things didn’t go as planned.

And like most players who come from out-of-state, there are things he misses from back home, unsurprisingly related to the taste buds.

“Collared greens, ribs, chicken, baked beans, white rice, all of that,” Cook said. “I just miss the food, that’s all. Food and family.”

More from Reign of Troy

Despite those natural symptoms of homesickness, Cook says leaving is not on his mind.

“It was hard to come,” Cook admitted. “But once I got here and got with the team, got with the family. These are my brothers now so, I’m loving it. I love SC.”

CHECK OUT: USC’s 25 Most Dominant Defenders Ever

Cook still sees himself as a safety, and there’s every possibility the player will make his way back to that position eventually.

For now, the Trojans are excited to see just how far they can take this experiment.

“We’re going to make an investment there [at nickel] right now, to see how it looks and then go from there,” said Helton.