April 21, 2011
By Gregg Bell
UW Director of Writing
SEATTLE - How anxious is Deontae Cooper to finally make his Huskies debut?
The redshirt freshman running back led UW's offense jogging from one end of the field to the other just before the final scrimmage period of Thursday's 11th spring practice. Cooper raised his arms, whooped and hollered and slapped blockers on their backs.
When John Timu intercepted a pass, Cooper raced all the way from 20 yards behind the play beyond the far sideline and onto the perimeter track in pursuit of the linebacker.
Just think of all Cooper would do if he was actually participating in the scrimmage.
The irrepressible, potentially dynamic addition to Washington's offense this season was wearing a "no-contact" red jersey, like he has throughout April. He wore a black brace over his left knee, eight months following reconstructive knee surgery.
And he wore a huge smile.
"I'm doing good, I'm doing great. I feel great," he said, beaming again. "I'm just blessed to have a new opportunity at this."
Coach Steve Sarkisian gushed about Cooper and his perseverance following Thursday's practice at Husky Stadium. "Oh, he's got a great attitude," Sarkisian said. "Sometimes when guys get injured they can really mope, get their daubers down. It's a real challenge. And it's a real credit to him. He's fought through it."
The 37-year-old coach was a record-setting quarterback at Brigham Young, in 1995-96, played three seasons in the Canadian Football League and has coached for 10 seasons in college plus one as an assistant in the NFL.
So Sarkisian has seen a major knee injury or three. Yet he said of the effervescent Cooper: "I can't think of a guy handling it better than he has."
"He's done a great job in school - which can sometimes be a problem, when guys get injured they can fall behind in school," Sarkisian said. "He's rehabbed really well. And in turn, when he's gotten the opportunity he's looked great."
The 6-foot, 193-pound Cooper, from Citrus Hill High School in Perris, Calif., is rock solid after attacking his rehabilitation and the UW weight room like they were helpless Pac-10 cornerbacks in the open field. Throughout the winter, people around the football program, from athletic director Scott Woodward on down, kept saying, "Have you seen Deontae Cooper? He's been getting after it. He's primed for a huge year."
It was a continuation of his fiendish work ethic in high school, when he bench pressed 345 pounds and could squat 415.
For now, he is getting more and more work each practice during individual position drills and group work with other skill-position players. He's moving so effortlessly, it's as if the rushing star of UW's spring game in 2010 never shredded his knee while getting tackled in preseason drills last August.
When did Cooper feel he was finally past the injury, or at least back to feeling like himself again?
"A couple weeks after surgery," he said.
Wait, a couple weeks? When just bending the leg was an accomplishment?
"It was time to move on," Cooper says, flatly. "I couldn't soak in it. Put a foot forward and keep going with it.
"I kind of had an idea that this wasn't going to stop me. I have four more years. Coach Sark and I talked about how that first year I was going to kind of face adversity. I mean, that's what it was.
"You just have to keep moving."
Sarkisian can hardly wait to see Cooper at full go.
"It's hard because we all want to just keep throwing him in there, throwing him in there and watch him go. But he looks terrific," the coach said. "I'm seeing the suddenness in his cuts in both legs. He's catching the ball well. The one thing we don't get to see is the physicality, but I'm not as concerned about that. He showed a lot of courage last fall. I think his progress has been great."
Cooper ran for 7,450 yards and 107 touchdowns during his high school career at Citrus Hill, just south of Riverside. The yardage was second-most ever in California's Inland Empire region, behind only Toby Gerhart, the Heisman Trophy finalist at Stanford two seasons ago.
As a high school senior, Cooper romped for 2,863 yards and 34 touchdowns, averaging 9 yards a carry. In one game that year, he had a mind-boggling 60 rushes. That a baker's dozen fewer times than freshman Jesse Callier carried it for UW while playing in all 12 regular-season games and gaining 424 yards in 2010.
All the while, Cooper carried a grade-point average of 3.5. That allowed him to enroll early at UW in January 2010.
He seemed destined to be an immediate contributor as a true freshman next to 1,000-yard back Chris Polk. Then he severely injured the knee in practice three weeks before the season opener.
"Oh, man. It was tough," Cooper said. "It was really tough because I was younger and I really didn't know how to deal with it. But as you get older, you are away from home, and that forces you to mature. I feel like this has helped me understand and be grateful for the opportunity I've gotten.
Sarkisian said he anticipates Cooper being fully ready for the start of fall camp in early August.
For Cooper, it's a re-start, with four full seasons still left to make his Huskies mark. That chance at immediate contribution is why he chose Washington over three other Pac-10 schools and two from the Big-12 Conference.
"That's a lot of hype on our coaching staff. Man, our coaching staff, it's wonderful," he said. "The support they've been showing me - through the injury, before the injury, after the injury - it's just phenomenal. I love this coaching staff.
"I don't know how it is in the rest of the country, but I know how it is here. It's one of the best."
He has a message for those who are still in high school and intrigued by the opportunity to play for Sarkisian's rising Huskies program:
What are you waiting for?
"I mean, if you are looking for opportunity, this is the place to come, because one thing they are going to give you is opportunity," Cooper said. "That's one thing a lot of kids are looking for is a chance to play. And if you want an opportunity to play, this is the place to be."
Finally, his opportunity at UW is about to come.