High school backfield duo are best friends and now rivals at Florida State and Miami
Since their days in the youth football leagues of Miami, running backs Dalvin Cook and Joseph Yearby have been the subject of an ongoing debate: Who’s better?
“Every game, people would argue,” says Cook’s brother, former University of Miami basketball player Deandre Burnett. “Dalvin should be getting more carries. Joe should have got the ball there. They’re both good. Whoever gets the ball, it’s going to be an exciting run.”
They played together at Miami Central High, producing some of the gaudiest rushing stats in the rich history of South Florida high school football and helping the elite program win three state titles.
This year, Cook and Yearby — both sophomores and still best friends — are key figures on opposite sides of one of college football’s best rivalries.
Seminoles fans in the post-Jameis Winston era feel the offense is in good hands with Cook (6'0", 203 pounds), who led ACC freshmen in rushing yards (1,008) and scored eight touchdowns. Hurricanes fans missing Duke Johnson are happy to have Yearby (5'9", 195), who rushed for 509 yards and a touchdown.
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Cook established himself as a star at the end of last season, rushing for 592 yards in his final five games with an MVP performance (220 total yards and a touchdown) in the ACC Championship Game. As Johnson’s backup, Yearby broke the 100-yard mark in two games.
Both feel it’s time, as Cook says, to “take over.” They’ve been waiting for this chance since they first bonded over workouts, video games and a whole lot of wins at Central High.
“We’d say to each other, we want to win championships, be in the race for the Heisman,” Yearby says. “We wanted to be the greatest to come out of high school and college.”
Cook grew up in Miami Gardens, around the corner from the Hurricanes’ home field. Yearby was raised a few neighborhoods south in Liberty City. When they joined together as high school sophomores, they instantly recognized something special.
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They even went to Central coach Telly Lockette and stated a goal: “We’re going to be the best two running backs you ever coached,” Cook said.
Few metro areas in the nation produce as much football talent as Miami. Every year, Division I rosters contain some 350 players who hail from its 60 high school programs. But Cook and Yearby weren’t just city legends. Veteran recruiting analysts like Larry Blustein and Scout.com’s Jamie Newberg consider Cook and Yearby two of the best high school running backs the state of Florida has ever produced.
To have both in the same backfield? Unheard of.
After backing up future NFL back Devonta Freeman as a freshman, Yearby became the first sophomore in Miami-Dade County history to rush for 2,000 yards in a season. He finished high school with 5,592 yards; had he not broken his left fibula in a regional semifinal his senior year, he would have had two games to gain the 104 yards needed to break Bobby Washington’s county record.
Cook played fewer games, having made his varsity debut as a sophomore and missing half of a season because of shoulder surgery, but he finished with 4,267 yards. His yards-per-carry average broke the county record held by Johnson, who went on to earn All-America honors at Miami.
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Their combined rushing yardage would rank seventh all-time in high school history. In four years with Yearby (three of them with Cook), Central went 53–5.
“We were just unselfish,” Cook says. “Whoever was hot that night, we’d let them put on a show. Most of the time, we were both hot, so Joe would go to quarterback and I’d go to running back. We’d never take it too serious. We’d just run. We could run forever.”
In his senior year, Cook created a lasting memory. In the 2013 Class 6A state title game in Orlando, he ran for 223 yards and four touchdowns on 19 carries. He swapped his No. 4 jersey for the No. 3 of Yearby, who sat on the bench in a cast, cheering him on.
“You don’t find too many guys just like you,” Cook says. “You cherish those guys. Joe’s going to be my brother forever.”
“When we first got together, we clicked,” Yearby says. “He knows everything about me. I know everything about him. We balance out each other.”
At a get-together in February, former Hurricanes star Clinton Portis talked about the pair with his former position coach, Don Soldinger. Portis saw them in the 2012 Class 6A state championship, when they combined for 251 total yards and four rushing touchdowns, two apiece.
“I couldn’t tell the difference between them,” Portis said. “Every time they had the ball, it was a gash — 40 yards, 50 yards.”
Soldinger, who once coached a UM backfield featuring future NFL Pro Bowlers in Portis, Frank Gore and Willis McGahee, was similarly impressed when he watched Cook and Yearby play on a hot Friday night.
“It was impossible to handle them,” Soldinger says. “One would come in — boom, 20-yard run. The other would come in — boom, 35-yard run. I remember saying, ‘Boy, if Miami could get both of those guys, they’d be something special.’”
For a time, it was unclear whether the Hurricanes would land either. Yearby committed to Florida State in May of his sophomore year. Cook pledged to Clemson a month later. When offensive coordinator James Coley left the Seminoles for the Canes in January 2013, he pulled Yearby with him. Soon after, Cook flipped to Florida. Jimbo Fisher later lured him to Tallahassee.
They teased the possibility of an on-campus reunion, but those close to them say that was never a possibility. Besides, the debate is more fun when they are opponents.
• “We wouldn’t trade Joe for anybody,” UM coach Al Golden says.
• “Cook is the more explosive of the pair,” says Newberg. “I see Yearby as the Barry Sanders type. You can never get a clean shot.”
• “Joe’s not as fast as Dalvin, but not a lot of people are,” Coley says. “Joe’s got more wiggle than Dalvin.”
• “You want to compare by pure speed? It’s Dalvin,” says Lockette, now Oregon State’s running backs coach. “But Joe is not far behind.”
Cook’s Seminoles got the upper hand last year, finishing 13–1 with a blowout loss to Oregon in the Rose Bowl. Yearby’s Hurricanes went a disappointing 6–7 and ended with four losses in a row, including an Independence Bowl defeat at the hands of South Carolina. Yearby says his main goal is to infuse a fractured locker room with the “championship mentality” he and Cook shared.
Miami’s slide started with a Nov. 15 home loss to FSU. On the turf of Sun Life Stadium, a 10-minute drive from Cook’s home, he grabbed hold of the rivalry for the first time. Late in the fourth quarter with the Seminoles down three points, Cook lined up 26 yards from the end zone. He was confident he would score on his next touch. He knew exactly how he would celebrate, too.
With his right hand, he would touch his thumb to his forefinger. That’s a gesture of Miami pride; the three fingers and circle of the right hand and the five fingers of the left signal “305,” the local area code.
Cook drifted right, took the handoff from Winston and slipped through a series of Hurricanes defenders like a ghost. With the game on the line, Yearby says, Cook is “like Michael Jordan.” He eluded one tackle, then another, then another, until he crossed the goal line. In a perfect bit of symmetry, the clock read 3:05. Cook spread his arms wide, letting cheers and boos rain down.
“I always wanted to do that,” he says. “It was a moment I will never forget.”
Neither will Yearby, who says he’s checking off days on his calendar until Oct. 10. This year’s game is in Tallahassee. He says if he scores a touchdown or two, he’ll throw up the “305.” Further playing his part in their newfound rivalry, Yearby jokes that he’s going to meet with his coaches that week and give them a detailed scouting report on Cook.
After all, few know him better.