Alex Cook’s success story doesn’t resemble a straight line.
It’s not the path preferred by most high-profile recruits — who strive to succeed in high school, then succeed in college, then succeed in the NFL, with only trace amounts of adversity sprinkled in the margins.
And, for a while, that was Cook’s trajectory as well. He starred as both a wide receiver and a safety at Sheldon High School in Sacramento, compiling 11 touchdowns and 92 tackles in a sparkling senior season. He committed to the Washington Huskies over scholarship offers from Arizona, Michigan, Oregon, Utah, UCLA and many more.
Brandyn Thompson — who played cornerback for former UW head coach Chris Petersen at Boise State from 2007 to 2010 — was essential in that ascendance. He coached Cook’s seven-on-seven teams and trained UW’s redshirt junior safety “since he was a young pup.” He saw him succeed on both sides of the ball, piling up stats and producing new stories.
Like the time Cook matched up against future Utah corner (and Chicago Bears second-round draft choice) Jaylon Johnson in the closing seconds of a seven-on-seven game.
“It was a great game, came down to that last series, and Alex went in to talk to our quarterback,” Thompson said. “He just looks at (current Idaho State quarterback Tyler Vander Wal). He’s like, ‘Tyler, throw me the ball. Throw it up.’ So we run a fade. Last play of the game, game’s on the line, and Alex in Alex fashion goes up and makes some acrobatic one-handed catch, barely gets a foot in and everybody goes crazy.
“Out here we love to tell that story. It’s kind of the Alex Cook story. He won us at least six games that year in game-winning fashion.”
It’s a story you’ve heard before. Talented player has success.
But what happens when the story strays off the straight line?
Though Cook was recruited more consistently on the defensive side, he opted instead to play wide receiver at Washington. Head coach Jimmy Lake jokes that “he was in my office first on the defensive side of the building (on his recruiting trip). We knew he was a really good player on both sides of the ball. But we recruited him as a DB first and then he slipped through my fingers.”
And, once he did, Cook struggled to see the field. He redshirted as a true freshman in 2017, then managed just one catch for 26 yards the following season. After flipping to safety in the spring of 2019, he made three special-teams tackles in 13 games last fall.
Which is why, when UW released its depth chart last week, it was surprising to see Cook — and not sophomore Cameron Williams, who started seven games last fall — listed as a first-team safety.
Well, we should say it was surprising to some.
“I don’t think he’ll surprise anybody in that locker room or any of the coaches on that staff that know who Alex Cook is and how he works and what he’s about,” said Thompson, who runs a football training program in Sacramento called “DB Select.” “He’s definitely not going to surprise me. But to the outside fan that maybe is a little unfamiliar with him, especially with him coming in as a receiver and never seeing him play defense, I think they’ll be pleasantly surprised.
“He’s going to be a physical presence. He has that electricity to be the quarterback of the defense. Guys rally around him, and he’ll bring energy. The ball skills that made him an excellent receiver are going to make him an even more excellent DB.”
Of course, after three essentially empty seasons, the 6-foot-1, 200-pound thumper will have to prove the Alex Cook success story is exactly that. Lake noted last week that “he’s learned the defense, and now he’s just accelerating. Now we’ve got to see him do it in a real game. But he’s been doing it in practice. And if you’re doing it in practice, you’re probably going to do it in a game.”
In the Pac-12, of all places, “probably” doesn’t always translate into production.
But in a seemingly indefinite offseason, Cook certainly has impressed.
“He put in a lot of hard work on the field, in the meeting rooms, extra meetings with (defensive backs coach Will) Harris and coach (Terrence) Brown,” said UW defensive coordinator Pete Kwiatkowski. “He bought into it from day one and it’s been steady progress.
“The way he attacked camp this year, he looked comfortable out there and he practiced really well. With that came confidence. He earned everything he got by how he went about his business.”
Added UW senior cornerback Keith Taylor: “We’re just waiting on that first game, really. In the preseason games he’s been really showing out. Every day he brings it, so I’m excited to see what he does.”
Thompson, of course, is able to offer a sneak peek. And he doesn’t want to wax on about the physical features.
What separates Cook, he says, is something almost innate.
“He has all the things that you have to have to play at that level, in terms of size, speed, athleticism, balance, ball skills — all of what I call the ‘Power Five minimums,’” said Thompson, who played for Washington’s NFL team as well as the CFL’s Ottawa Redblacks and Edmonton Eskimos. “But to me what makes him special is just his electricity. It’s not something I think you can put your fingers on. It’s just something that’s felt everywhere that kid goes.
“You go and talk to his Pop Warner coaches and teammates, they love him. You talk to his high school coaches and teammates, they love him. Right now at his college, I think that’s a big piece of why everyone’s so happy for him there. It’s because of who he is — how he carries himself.”
Of course, when the straight line got a little too squiggly, he could have carried himself to an entirely different team. Cook could have transferred to a program with more immediate playing time.
Instead, he stayed. He studied. He earned his starting reps.
This particular success story just needed some extra seasoning.
“He’s human at the end of the day. So there was definitely some trying times,” Thompson said. “Of course it didn’t go exactly how he maybe mapped it out in his head to start. But that’s why I speak so highly of that young man. Because especially in today’s day and age — where I feel like kids don’t stick it out as much, they’re not as patient, they don’t trust the process, as everyone loves to say but very few actually do — he’s a walking testament to that.
“As I work with this next group of young men, he’s literally my soaring story right now. Because he did do that. He stuck to the script, stuck it out, didn’t make any excuses, just kept working, earned his right to be the starter. And I love that.”
If all goes well, the Washington faithful will love it too.