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Countdown to Virginia Football: #27 OLB Malcolm Cook looks to fill a hybrid role under Mendenhall’s defense

What happens when a safety adds 20 pounds in an offseason? Hopefully, greatness.

Malcolm Cook Virginia Media Relations

Position: OLB

Height: 6’1”

Weight: 225

Year: RS Junior

Hometown: Richmond

Twitter: @Malcolmcook27

When Malcolm Cook came out of Fork Union Military Academy (the undergrad team), big things were expected. After all, he was a highly touted recruit. He was rated 3 stars by ESPN, Rivals and Scout, while 247sports rated him 4 stars. He had offers from nearly every ACC team as well as some SEC teams, and was also recruited by members of the Big 12, Pac 12 and Big 10.

Cook came to college with a reputation as a bigger safety who had cover skills and was also capable of making a big hit in run support. He was listed at just 200 pounds, which is a little bit small for a “big” safety. Not small for an incoming freshman, but a bit small to be seeing the field. (Quin Blanding, by comparison, came to college at about 210.)

He redshirted as a true freshman, though this was no surprise. The Hoos had a pair of upperclassmen starting at safety (let’s gloss over the fact that Brandon Phelps shouldn’t have been playing safety) and plenty of depth behind them. Then Cook suffered an injury during camp the next year and played sparingly on special teams that year. Last year, Cook was beginning to find his way on the field (on special teams mostly) when he suffered another injury and missed the final 9 games of the year.

Heading into this year, it looked like Cook’s biggest problem was that the safety position is probably the best position the team has. Blanding and Kelvin Rainey may be the most locked in starters on the team, and there is a ton of depth behind them. Then came Coach Mendenhall and his new 3-4 defense. Mendenhall has talked about the ability to alter your defense from a 3-4 to a 3-3-5 (or various other formations) without substituting. This defense requires the “hybrid” player that is so prevalent in college football today -- someone who can play both LB and S. You need a guy who has cover skills but can also come up and support the run defense. (Some teams use a hybrid DE/OLB who can rush the passer but also cover a flat zone or even cover a RB out of the backfield.)

Well now doesn’t that sounds a lot like Cook? Of course, at 210 pounds, Cook was too small to play LB even in a hybrid role. So, Cook dedicated himself in the weight room and put on over 20 pounds of muscle in a single offseason. He’s now listed at 225, though reports have him closer to 230 or more.

Here’s Cook’s senior year highlight film. There’s some shots of Cook on offense, which we can largely disregard. He does show good hands, but that’s also evident from his defensive highlights, which include a few well-played interceptions.

What is most interesting is that Cook is shown lining up in many different places. He’s lined up in a deep zone on a cover-2. He’s lined up out wide opposite a slot receiver. And he’s lined up inside where you’d expect an OLB to be. So he certainly appears to have experience playing a hybrid-type role. He’s a physical player, though at least based on this film, it seems he doesn’t always take the best routes to get to the ball / ball carrier. That is something he’s hopefully been working on for the past few years.

But he also shows some pretty good cover skills, playing man coverage against slot receivers and tight ends. He sticks with his man on seam routes, deep outs and corner routes. These aren’t always the easiest plays to defend in man coverage. He also plays some zone coverage, where he is able to keep his head facing the QB. This is his strength and where he’ll be used mostly in the new defense. He’s a read-and-react kind of guy, who has good instincts and will break quickly on the ball. I would not be surprised to see Cook come up with multiple interceptions this year out of the OLB spot.