CHULA VISTA, Calif. — Standing proudly in his No. 28 Blackshirt jersey, washed in the California sunshine a day before Christmas, Byerson Cockrell was thinking about how far he’d come.
Fifteen months earlier, the defensive back from Columbus, Mississippi, didn’t know a thing about Nebraska. Never could have guessed he’d be traveling to play in big stadiums in Michigan, Wisconsin and Iowa.
Now he was a Husker getting ready to play a game against a famed USC program in the stadium that is home to the San Diego Chargers. Better yet, he was about to go to the zoo.
“I’ve been to a zoo, like, one time,” he said.
The kid from the small Mississippi town who knew nothing outside of Mississippi had few big-time programs knocking down his door. He toiled in junior college ball, playing games in front of a few hundred people, his coaches telling him he’d get his chance at someplace big.
He believed them. Had to believe them. Because.
Because maybe he’d end up standing here, a starter at Nebraska, on a bowl trip where you go to zoos and touch dolphins and get a $445 gift card you’re going to use to buy your mom a Christmas gift.
“I’m just blessed, man. Coming from something like that, juco, having nothing and being out in the middle of nowhere,” Cockrell said. “When I look back, I see that hard work really pays off. I feel like if I could give any young person advice, I’d tell them keeping working hard and don’t ever give up, don’t ever give up. Because you never know what might happen.
“I never thought that I’d be playing for Nebraska. I didn’t think Nebraska was a state at first. I’m not good with states and all that. Especially being from Mississippi, I never left the state and I didn’t know much. Now I come here. I’ve been all types of places.”
The best may be yet to come. That’s what the junior thinks.
The 6-foot, 185-pound Cockrell has versatility, which should make him an attractive piece to the Husker puzzle as they maneuver into 2015 under new head coach Mike Riley.
“I don’t know what they’re going to be doing, obviously, schematically, but I think he’ll always have a home,” said Husker defensive coordinator John Papuchis. “Because, No. 1, he plays hard. The game’s important to him. And he does have some flexibility.”
He can play nickel, corner or safety, which he played against Iowa because of Corey Cooper’s injury. Admittedly, safety isn’t Cockrell’s favorite position, but he played the spot admirably in a pinch. And his work all season at nickel — a difficult spot to learn in Bo Pelini’s defense — lessened the sting of a fall camp injury to Charles Jackson.
Then there’s cornerback. If Cockrell had his druthers, he’d win one of the starting corner jobs his senior year.
“Thinking into the future, if I get a chance to go to the league … that’s the position I would like to play. Because NFL corners, they’re big, they can run, they’re physical. I just got to keep working hard. I feel like I got a better chance at corner than anyplace else.”
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There’s excitement in his voice as he talks about what he thinks this defense can be in 2015, especially this secondary, which will still have Charlton Warren coaching it.
“I feel like, man, we’re going to be good,” Cockrell said. “You got Chuck coming back, you got LeRoy (Alexander) coming back. Oh, man. This spring, we’re just going to compete the whole time.”
Cockrell has been competing hard ever since he started playing ball back in Mississippi.
He describes his hometown as “Deep South, pretty much.” About 20,000 people live there. “It’s a pretty chill town. It’s not one of those places you come to party or nothing like that. It’s a good place to raise your family.”
He’s proud of where he’s from, just like people in his town are proud of where he’s going.
Cockrell said people from home pass on supportive messages on Facebook and Instagram all the time. They tell him they saw him on television. They tell him to keep going places.
“They’re all just proud of me,” Cockrell said. “Coming from a small town, man, we just don’t see things like that. I feel like it’s just something to encourage my family back home, encourage little kids, encourage my cousins, little kids I don’t know. It’s just good. They’ve been bragging on me and praising me and I just feel like if I can do anything, just go back home and hang out with them and show them that I still care.”
People like to fish and hunt back home. Cockrell is one of those people. He spent many hours of his youth on the Tombigbee River.
“Catfish, bass. I’ll catch anything. I just like to fish.”
On the football field, Cockrell never doubted himself, but injuries while he was in high school kept colleges away. He played just two plays his junior year before hurting his shoulder. Going into his senior year, he knew he was one more injury from probably losing college football opportunities.
He didn’t get hurt. He had seven interceptions and a whole lot of pass breakups. He thought Ole Miss or Mississippi State might offer. Coaches from both schools talked to him. The offer never came.
So he went to East Mississippi Community College. The coaches had known him since he was a freshman in high school. They believed in his talents. Byerson Cockrell’s big break was about to come.
Just work hard. Believe.
“They pretty much told me, ‘You come here, I promise I’m going to get you somewhere good.’ They weren’t playing. They got me to Nebraska. Not too many people can say that. Nobody can say that where I’m from.”