Buffalo's fourth round pick Ross Cockrell remembers the interception very well, but his fellow Duke alum and current Bills quarterback would prefer to forget it. Thad Lewis was a senior quarterback at Duke and going against the scout team in practice he faced Cockrell, a true freshman at cornerback.
"I had heard about this defensive back who was pretty good out of Charlotte, so we're out on the practice field and I threw a go route and I underthrew it a little bit and he played it really well and he intercepted it," Lewis told Buffalobills.com. "And I was like, 'Who is this kid?' And from then on I kind of came to know who he was."
Cockrell (6-0, 190) would redshirt during Lewis' last season as the Blue Devils leader and quarterback. Fast forward four years later and it was Cockrell, who was serving his second year as team captain and leading a Duke team to a bowl game appearance while also reaching the ACC conference title game.
Lewis would return to campus every year and see the progress and maturity in Cockrell's game. Entering his final game in the Chik-Fil-A bowl against Texas A&M Cockrell was to be matched up with the Aggies big receiver Mike Evans. Lewis provided some counsel.
"Before they played Texas A&M in the bowl game I told him, 'Look you'll be going against Mike Evans, who is a first-round draft pick and if he doesn't catch any passes on you that's going to be good for you becoming a draft pick too.'"
Cockrell allowed Evans to make just four catches for 72 yards in what wound up being a 52-48 loss for Duke after Johnny Manziel staged another late comeback.
"Personally, it was great. I wish it would have been better for the program as well," said Cockrell. "It would have been a great win for us. But I think it opened a lot of eyes that this guy from Duke can actually play a little ball and will be able to compete at the next level."
Lewis didn't need any convincing.
"He's a very smart player," said Lewis. "One thing he lacked was a little size, but now he's 190 pounds and he's maintained that and has good speed. He's a good cover cornerback, but on top of that he makes plays and he makes tackles. He's matured and he's a leader in that secondary. All those young DBs on the team looked up to him."
"You love his size and he's played there and competed well every year there," said Bills Director of Player Personnel Jim Monos. "He's a winner, has ball skills, has good speed. Ross has picks from throughout his career and that is one thing he has a knack for. He's a very instinctive, intelligent guy. He picks it up real quick. He's another guy we had on a (pre-draft) visit here and did a great job."
Lewis remembers another game where Cockrell was being a true coach on the field. Through his own film study he was telling a fellow defensive back how to line up to make a play on the ball.
"He was telling him, 'Play inside. Play inside,'" recalled Lewis, who was at the game. "A couple of plays later he chased the younger player out of the spot and said, 'Let me get in there.' And on the next play he got an interception. That's the kind of player he is. He understands that football is as mental as it is physical. Recognizing formations and things of that nature you'll get an opportunity to jump routes."
Buffalo's backup quarterback is just hoping Cockrell doesn't take any of his intended passes for receivers the other way in spring OTA practices.
"I'm not giving him any of my plays," said Lewis. "I'm definitely going to go at him every day. He has a defense he has to learn. Hopefully he can learn it quick and show the skills that he has, but I'm here to try to help him to get better and the best way to do that is by competing against him in practice."
And though Cockrell has achieved a major life goal in reaching the NFL, he's fully cognizant of the work that still lies in front of him.
"My dream has always been to play in the NFL since I was about four or five years old," he said. "It's been a lot of patience and a lot of hard work and there is a lot more left to do."