Kennedy Polamalu's first introduction to running back Dalvin Cook was through film.
The Vikings running backs coach popped in the tape and leaned back in his chair: Cook versus Miami.
"Probably the first film that I put in was him against Miami, because that's his hometown – to see how he plays and how he reacts," Polamalu recalled. "And then him against Clemson, another big opponent. And the bowl game against Michigan … you want to see how he reacts."
National stage games and hometown crowds could easily offer distractions, but Cook showed nothing but focus.
"The kid loves football," Polamalu said. "He is very competitive, and his enthusiasm is contagious."
First impressions are important, and Cook made a positive one on Polamalu before ever meeting him.
As a junior at Florida State, Cook recorded 150 rushing yards on 27 carries and added a 59-yard reception for a touchdown against Miami. And it wasn't the first time he ran all over his hometown school. Over three seasons and three matchups, Cook quieted the Hurricanes with 464 rushing yards and six touchdowns (four rushing, two receiving).
Cook racked up 169 yards and four touchdowns on the ground against Clemson in 2016.
The Seminoles' pro-style offense gave Polamalu snapshots of Cook in situation after situation that was comparable to the NFL.
"You see him run behind the quarterback, and then in the shotgun, you see him catch the football. You see him check protection," Polamalu said. "And those are things that are usually very difficult to watch because a lot of colleges are in the tempo, shotgun offense."
Cook finished his college career as Florida State's all-time leader in rushing yards (4,464) and rushing touchdowns (46) in just three seasons. In December, he played in the Orange Bowl, once again on a Miami stage. Cook led the Seminoles to a one-point victory over Michigan and was named the game's MVP after gaining 207 yards of offense (145 rushing, 62 receiving).
And when he traded in FSU's Garnet and Gold for Vikings Purple, Cook hit the ground running.
On the first play of his first NFL game, Cook felt the weight of the ball in his hands.
He took the handoff from Sam Bradford out of the shotgun formation and surged ahead, barreling through a knot of bodies for a gain of 5 before being taken to the ground.
Second play, another handoff, this time from the pistol for a 4-yard gain.
Third play, third-and-1. Bradford took the snap out of shotgun, this time passing it to Cook in the flat for a first down and then some.
Cook played the first three series of Minnesota's 17-10 defeat of Buffalo. The rookie running back's numbers were modest but memorable on the night of his 22nd birthday: five carries for 13 rushing yards and four catches for 30 yards through the air.
"It was definitely fun, getting that first carry," Cook said after the game. "Once you get that out of the way, you can really get going and play football."
He prides himself on versatility.
"Going out there and catching balls," Cook said. "If they split me out wide, if they free-release me out of the backfield, whatever it is, I just have to help my team win games. That's what they brought me in for."
Just a handful of months ago, the Vikings couldn't envision a scenario in which Cook landed in their laps.
Leading up to the NFL Draft, Polamalu studied film on each and every draft-eligible back. He scouted, he evaluated, he had a wish list.
"I didn't think we even had a chance at drafting him," said Polamalu, who had tracked Cook's success since his time at Miami Central High School.
Polamalu said he was asked about Cook by Vikings General Manager Rick Spielman.
"I really had him ranked going, you know," Polamalu said, using his hand to demonstrate an imaginary measurement above his head. "I didn't think he was even going to be close to where we were going to be drafting."
The Vikings, who had traded their 2017 first-round pick in exchange for Bradford the previous September when Teddy Bridgewater went down with a season-ending knee injury, weren't slated to pick until the second round at No. 48.
But Cook kept slipping through the cracks, staying on the board through the first night of the draft. On the second night, Spielman and the Vikings traded up to the 41st overall pick to snag Cook.
"You're just hoping," Polamalu said. "And then when it came true, now it was trying to build an environment and teach him some of the skills needed not only on the field but off the field as well."
The rookie has been more than receptive to that environment.
Through rookie minicamp, OTAs, training camp and now three preseason games, Cook has taken each new step in stride. Bradford has played with a number of rookie backs over his first seven seasons in the league and said Cook's ease of transition has been impressive.
"He's just really sharp," Bradford said. "Mentally, for him to be able to come in and grasp everything that we've asked him to do and asked him to learn, I think that's been one of the more impressive things about him."
Added Bradford: "We put a play in, we put a protection in, we put a scheme in, and it's like he's got it."
The quarterback stressed that the offense hasn't catered to Cook in any way by creating special plays for him, and the team hasn't been limited in what it asks him to do.
"I mean, we've pretty much thrown everything at him, and he's shown that he's able to handle that," Bradford said.
One aspect of the game Cook continually works to further develop is his vision, a quality he believes sets him apart from other running backs in the league.
While he relies on physical ability and quick feet to surge him through holes, it's Cook's vision that "puts my body in place to make the plays." He explained that hitting the gym and training his eyes are equally important – especially when practicing against Minnesota's defense.
"In the NFL, the holes close real quick," Cook said. "[You're] coming to a hole, it may look wide open, but you've got d-linemen like Linval [Joseph], and he's just so smart where he'll just wait on you to come back. And I think my eyes put me in a place to do that – take the next hole, which might be the better hole, stuff like that."
Polamalu said that since arriving in Minnesota, Cook has welcomed any instruction that can help him improve his vision and every other facet of his game.
"He's always trying to improve, and that's what's fun," Polamalu said. "He's a coachable young man – very coachable. He listens and takes it, and then he uses and applies it. I couldn't ask for more as a position coach."
Cook is now grateful for the opportunity to apply the things he learns from coaches and his veteran teammates on game day.
In Cook's second preseason game – and second start – against the Seahawks on Aug. 18, he played two offensive series and recorded 40 rushing yards on seven carries, including a 15-yard burst. He added a 10-yard reception.
"I thought he displayed good vision," Offensive Coordinator Pat Shurmur said of Cook's Seattle performance. "He's trying to do what we're coaching him to do, yet he's very natural in his ability to run the football. There were a couple seams he hit there that were pretty tight that became almost explosive runs.
"You see a guy that's disappointed when he doesn't make the safety miss," Shurmur continued. "That's a good thing because one of those times when the safety does miss, that could be a touchdown."
Minnesota's playbook is a little larger than Florida State's, but Cook has embraced the challenge. With three preseason contests now under his belt and just over a week separating the rookie from his first regular-season game in the pros, Cook is chomping at the bit.
"I love the game," Cook said. "I love everything that comes with it. The winning. The losing. The brotherhoods. The fans. The relationships that you make, the people that you meet. I love this game. It's all I know, man."
Cook will have the opportunity tonight to once again face a Miami squad, this time at the highest level. Against his hometown team, he'll take the field of his adopted home, ready to make plays and win over the hearts of Minnesota.
And on Sept. 11, Cook hopes to lead the Vikings to a season-opener win over Adrian Peterson and the Saints. Just like he can envision where holes will appear in the defense, Cook has been picturing that day for as long as he can remember.
"I always dreamed about playing *Monday Night Football *in my first game," Cook said. "So it's going to be unreal. There couldn't have been a better way to start my career."