Sixteen months ago, the Texas Longhorns career of senior nickel back Anthony Cook was on the verge of officially becoming a bust.
“Due to unfortunate situations I will not be playing another snap for the University of Texas. [This] Has nothing to do with anyone or anything. Please respect my decision,” Cook tweeted in June 2020 before entering the NCAA transfer portal.
Cook later deleted the tweet and then returned to the Texas program a little more than a month later. But it took until new head coach Steve Sarkisian and his staff arrived on the Forty Acres this year for Cook to finally live up to his potential.
Reinvigorated by the third change in defensive coordinators during his time in Austin, Cook is the starting Star for Texas — the nickel position in Pete Kwiatkowski’s defense — and playing the best football of his college career, belatedly maximizing the skill set that led to a one-time five-star rating during his recruitment.
A 6’1, 191-pounder with prototypical size and length for the cornerback position, Cook was a national recruit out of Lamar High School in Houston, a virtual can’t-miss prospect who held 35 offers and considered overtures from powerhouses like Alabama, LSU, and Ohio State before committing to Texas on December 20, 2017, joining a highly-ranked Longhorns defensive back class featuring historic talent.
Cook checked nearly all the boxes as a recruit — in addition to the aforementioned prototypical build, he possessed high-level ball skills for a defensive back, the hip fluidity to transition in coverage, a verified 36.7-inch vertical leap and a 4.12 shuttle, and the experience of playing high-level competition in a well-coached defense.
If there was a single concern about Cook, it was his top-end speed after he ran a 4.69 40-yard dash while posting those other impressive testing numbers, a data point easy enough to ignore given his vertical and his shuttle time.
Still, Cook finished the cycle as the No. 64 prospect nationally and the No. 10 cornerback, according to the 247Sports Composite rankings.
But it never came together for Cook during his first three years with the Longhorns.
As a freshman, Cook received his first start against Oklahoma State when cornerbacks Kris Boyd and Davante Davis were suspended for part of the game against the Cowboys. Cook struggled in coverage as Oklahoma State star wide receiver Tylan Wallace ran wild, once again surfacing concerns about Cook’s speed.
Six tackles and a pass breakup against West Virginia were more positive contributions as Cook competed to position himself as a potential replacement for Boyd and Davis, who both exhausted their eligibility following the 2018 season.
Cook wasn’t able to fully take advantage of the opportunity in 2019, splitting time with classmate Jalen Green as the starter opposite yet another 2018 signee, D’Shawn Jamison. In six starts and 11 total appearances, Cook recorded 24 tackles, one tackle for loss, two pass breakups, and one forced fumble.
With the arrival of new defensive coordinator Chris Ash and a coverage scheme that placed an emphasis on pure speed, Cook moved inside to the Spur position, training with the linebackers and serving as the backup to Chris Adimora after returning to the team in 2020.
Another new defensive scheme after Tom Herman’s departure failed to significantly increase the expectations for Cook as Adimora returned as the starter, but Cook did begin to flash in practice, just not enough to earn reps with the first-team defense in the Orange-White game.
Then Cook made his move, emerging as one of the surprises of preseason camp — Adimora moved back to safety and while sophomore Jerrin Thompson cross-trained at Star in addition to his work at safety, Cook’s development allowed defensive passing game coordinator Terry Joseph to keep Thompson at safety.
Cook didn’t just win the job, either, maintaining a secure hold on his role with the most steady play of his career so far.
“Cookie’s been playing great all year,” Texas head coach Steve Sarkisian said after the TCU win. “We knew coming into the season that position was going to be one of, what’s going to happen at our Star? And Anthony has stepped up, and in my opinion, he’s continued to play better week in and week out.”
Only five games into the season, Cook has already matched his career highs in tackles with 24, ranking third on the team in that category, tackles for loss with two, and pass breakups with two.
In any modern defense, the demands on nickel backs are significant and Cook has demonstrated the versatility necessary to excel. He’s improved his tackling in space with 13 solo stops and fewer missed tackles than in previous years. He’s been physical setting the edge in the running game and in blowing up screen passes by fighting through blockers. And he’s been solid in pass coverage when asked to carry routes vertically.
Against the Horned Frogs, Cook made one of the game’s biggest plays — and the biggest play of his career.
With Texas clinging to a 23-17 lead after a three and out to start the second half, TCU drove into Longhorns territory after receiving good field position to start the drive. On 1st and 10 from the Texas 29-yard yard line, Kwiatkowski dialed up a blitz by Cook, likely expecting TCU to take a shot to the end zone. Indeed, the Horned Frogs called a play-action pass and quarterback Max Duggan never saw Cook coming off the edge as he looked downfield. Duggan didn’t feel Cook bearing down on him either and the big hit from the Texas Star forced a fumble Cook was quick to bounce up and recover for a momentum-swinging play.
@_ACook21 pic.twitter.com/3ID9jJn9Uw— Texas Football (@TexasFootball) October 2, 2021
In a familiar story the Horns on the day, the offense wasn’t able to score a touchdown following the turnover, but the subsequent field goal did push the lead to two scores and keep the Horned Frogs from having a shot at three points or more.
“You’re seeing his growth — obviously, the sack-fumble was a huge play and his ability to tackle, setting an edge, the versatility he provides,” Sarkisian said.
Even before the play, senior cornerback Josh Thompson called Cook’s development “crazy.”
“Cook is one special person to me just because you can see like his whole mindset just changed, like coming in early, staying on film study, bouncing back and showing that what he can do on the field matters,” Thompson said. “I love that. I mean, that’s a great way to express yourself — that’s the main thing.”