DENTON, Texas - 365 days ago DaWaylon Cook and Royce Hill had just finished their first two-a-day practice in full pads at North Texas. They were both wide eyed freshman who had to ask where the practice fields were their first day. What a difference a year has made.
Climbing Up The Hill
If you didn't know better, they were both in over their heads last year. Neither player had a lot of time to gear up. Coach Dodge and North Texas needed secondary help, quick, and both guys were going to play whether they were ready or not.
"It was real nerve racking last year at first but the coaches all believed in me," Hill said. "Coach Dodge and Coach DeLoach really pushed me hard and built up a lot of confidence."
Your first game as a freshman at any level is hard enough, but Hill was thrown right into the fire at Kansas State.
"I was glad to get that first play over with and just break the ice," Hill said while chuckling as he recalled the fans at the game. "It was crazy because it seemed like everyone there was yelling at just me."
Hill was the toast of the town for opposing teams last year. When teams looked at film, "No. 21, No. 21, No. 21, that's who were going after" they would say with excitement. QB's were salivating when looking towards his side, and he knew it.
Hill played in all 12 games and started in nine in 2008. He had respectable tackle numbers with 34, but only two pass breakups and zero interceptions. Those are the money stats for a cornerback and Hill rolled a snake eyes.
So what did the offseason hold for Hill? Would the disappointment from 2008 carry over? Not a second thought came across his mind.
"The entire attitude of the whole team is different," Hill said. "We have a new focus and Coach Dodge has been really inspiring to all of us. Having a strength coach who got us in shape has also been a huge improvement."
In fall camp, Hill has been nothing short of a lock-down guy. Don't ask me, ask the guys who have to play pitch and catch against him.
"It's unbelievable how much he's changed," quarterback Riley Dodge said. "He is so smart and so fast people aren't going to recognize him out there this year. He was put in a tough situation last year having to start as a true freshman but he has made so much improvement out there this fall, he hasn't had a bad day yet."
Things weren't any better for Cook last year. He played in 11 games, some at cornerback but got a lot of action in the return game. In 2008 Cook was used primarily as a back-up but was called upon in important situations not only on defense but also special teams.
"It was really hard coming out of high school and basically straight into the lineup," Cook said.
A safety in high school, Cook was at the cornerback position last fall, but now is back at his natural position at free safety and loving it.
"I love playing safety a lot, that's my position and I feel most confident at" Cook said.
It's been showing ever since January. In the spring, he had one coach saying "He can cover more ground than the rest of the secondary combined."
Since the start of fall camp this season, Cook has continued his rapid improvement. He has gotten bigger, faster and stronger but that isn't the X-factor in his improvement.
"I feel like the biggest difference from last year to now is our confidence," Cook said. "We all feel so much more confident and the game has really slowed down."
Cook's change was noticed very early in fall camp. In just the second day of practice, Cook was singled out by Coach Dodge and his position coach for his play and improvement.
Sky's The Limit
"Its sky high," Hill says when asked about his confidence level.
Motivation for this season isn't that hard to find for Cook.
"We all know what happened last year but we are better off for it," Cook said. "Its motivation for us but we know what we have to do."
Hill echo's the sentiments of his partner and wants to go one step further.
"I want to help this team get to a bowl game, and I mean this year," Hill said. "We want a ring and we want to go to a bowl game and that's a real goal of ours."
Hill and Cook are just a few pieces to what Mean Green fans hope is an improved defense. Last year they didn't know which practice field was which, now they have every inch covered corner to corner.