As part of our 2012 season review, we’re counting down the top 25 players in the ACC this season, from no. 25 to no. 1. Obviously these lists are always completely subjective — and thus completely bulletproof, obviously — so feel free to weigh in with your own thoughts in the comments, too.
Going into 2012, it was thought that Duke’s offense, led by Sean Renfree and Conner Vernon, would impress, though most were unsure about the Blue Devils defense. In the season’s early goings, it appeared as if Ross Cockrell took that as a challenge, guiding the way during an impressive opening effort. Through the first six games, the junior corner had four interceptions, defended nine passes and scored a touchdown on top of that. Even in the admittedly rocky Stanford game, where I myself called out Cockrell and the entire secondary for their failings, he still managed a pick and six tackles. Possibly the biggest statement about Cockrell’s skill set, however, came from how the end of the season played out. Four straight miserable losses for the Blue Devils took some of the luster off their surprising season, and there’s two ways of looking at those defeats. Either that Cockrell, as a veteran leader, needed to step up and failed to (just one INT, 20 tackles in four games). Or he was such an integral part of their success, that they couldn’t come away with a victory unless he played at an elite level. I won’t take a guess at which situation’s true, but take a look at their final, and fifth loss in a row — to Cincinnati in the Belk Bowl. Duke allowed nearly 70 passing yards above their already poor average (267 passing yards allowed per game) without him playing. Ultimately, it ended up being the difference in a close loss.