Aug. 10, 2012
By Gregg Bell
UW Director of Writing
SEATTLE - Hours after he learned he had torn the anterior cruciate ligament in his good knee after ripping up the other one in each of the previous two summers, Deontae Cooper was back.
Back to being the determined, irrepressible, immensely popular Deontae Cooper.
While sympathy and disbelief poured to him from his home area of Riverside County, California, and across the country, the Huskies' hard-luck running back was on the sidelines at UW's East Field Thursday afternoon. He was smiling, as usual. He was encouraging teammates through practice, as usual.
But just as he was emerging as a wild-card, the untapped option to fill the rushing void left by Chris Polk's departure to the NFL, Cooper was lost for another year. He inexplicably blew out his right knee on a routine, no-contact, handoff drill Wednesday.
He thought Thursday of a third go-around with the painful, seemingly endless months of rehabilitation far removed from the fanfare and the competition in which his teammates will bask. That anonymous process won't begin until after he has yet another reconstructive knee surgery in a couple weeks, pushing his Washington debut until at least three years past his enrollment date - if then.
Yet Cooper looked Steve Sarkisian in the eye Thursday and said resolutely: "Coach, I'll be back."
Who is going to doubt him?
Not his coach.
"You know, you get attached to people in the program, as a family," Sarkisian said after Thursday's practice and a long sigh. "You see the work ethic that Deontae has and his ability to persevere - not only through one ACL but then he comes back through another - and he had himself in great shape, ready to go.
"Really, (it's) just extremely difficult. It kind of left me in dismay for a little bit. I was almost baffled by it; how could it happen again? This time, on his good knee, with nobody around. Nothing...
"I believe this: Of all the guys on the team - we've got some great kids, some tough kids - I don't know that there is anybody that would handle it better than Deontae will. But he's going to need our support, that's for sure."
He's getting some. Current and former Huskies from around the world -- Napoleon Kaufman, Isaiah Thomas, Spencer Hawes, and Quincy Pondexter, among them -- sent Cooper immediate, online messages of disbelief, support and prayer.
He's appreciated every single one.
"To Deontae's credit, he's just an absolute stud about it. He's obviously shaken up about it, as anyone would be. That guy is low inside," Sarkisian said. "But why he is so unique and special, why people love him so much: He's back out here today with a smile on his face.
"We'll try to do everything in our power to help him through this process, because it's not an easy one."
Count Sarkisian as another believing Cooper will someday, finally, carry the ball in a game for the Huskies.
"I do. If anybody can, that guy (will)," the coach said. "He's just a great soul. He will battle again."
The 6-foot, 201-pound Cooper finished career at Citrus Hill High School in Perris, Calif., with 7,450 rushing yards, second in Inland Empire history to Toby Gerhart, the 2009 Heisman Trophy runner-up from Stanford. He was the star of UW's 2010 spring game and seemed destined for instant production until ACL tear number one, then two - and now, unbelievably, three.
Cooper was pushing for carries with Jesse Callier and Bishop Sankey in Sept. 1's opener against San Diego State when he took a handoff Wednesday in an early practice drill on quarterback-running back exchanges. The only defender was air. He didn't even fall to the ground. Yet Cooper felt a tweak in his lower right leg when he made his only plant on the synthetic grass.
He immediately told Sarkisian nonchalantly, "I think I've tweaked my calf."
An MRI exam Wednesday night confirmed the unfathomable.
"We've talked about it: The big guy upstairs has got a plan for him. We've just got to figure out what it is right now," Sarkisian said. "Because he is too good of a person. He will fight back, no doubt."
Sarkisian gathered his team Wednesday night to explain perhaps its most respected and popular member was out for the third consecutive season.
It was the quietest 105 college guys will ever be.
"That's what makes this so cool as a family and why I believe this team is so close: Two nights ago it was fun-loving and guys were up kind of putting on acts and dancing. And then the very next night I come in with that news," Sarkisian said.
"Obviously, a somber room, but I addressed it. We all needed to be there for him.
"That's what makes us unique as a family, that we can go from one night, one mood, and the very next night we are in that very same room talking about a guy's career and what he means to all of us in the program."
Counting a redshirt year and his medical-hardship redshirt season of 2011, Cooper will likely have as many as three years of eligibility remaining should he indeed get back yet again next summer.
His absence means more looks for freshman Erich Wilson II, who has been impressive in the first week of practice. Sophomore Willis Wilson and redshirt freshman Dezden Petty will also get more carries with Callier and Sankey.
Sarkisian didn't rule out eventually changing some guys' positions to bolster the running-back corps, as he obviously would like to have more depth at the position. His offense has averaged 35 rushing attempts per game in his first three season's calling UW's plays and the running game has been the foundations of his multiple schemes since he was USC's offensive coordinator years ago.
The fluke-like injuries go beyond Cooper's.
Pass-rushing defensive end Hauoli Jamora left Wednesday's practice with what Sarkisian initially thought was a mild knee sprain in another non-contact tweak. An MRI was inconclusive, so now Jamora is headed to arthroscopic surgery. It's the same left knee in which he tore his ACL last September against Colorado to prematurely end his 2011.
Sarkisian called the scope a "precaution" and estimated Jamora, who has 11 tackles for loss in 17 career games, will be out at least two weeks.
Erik Kohler remained out with a knee sprain sustained in the first fall practice on Monday. Dexter Charles continues to get more opportunities while Kohler, a two-year starter on the offensive line, watches from the side.
And senior starting wide receiver James Johnson was out Thursday with a sprained foot. No one is quite sure how or when he sustained it.
Sarkisian has spent three-plus years building the Huskies' depth to where playmakers now fill in for playmakers. The silver lining to all these injuries: The testing of that depth is coming in August.
INSIDE CAMP: Longtime Huskies defensive coordinator and former head coach Jim Lambright watched from the sunny sidelines for the first time this camp. ... Defensive backs continued to make aggressive plays on passes using new coordinator Justin Wilcox's in-your-face coverage schemes. Tre Watson leaped to intercept a pass on a post route run by Kendyl Taylor, drawing roars and high-fives from defensive coaches and players. Marcus Peters jumped with Kasen Williams, the Washington state high school high-jump champion a couple years ago, to break up a reception at the sideline. ... LB Nate Fellner, moved up from safety as UW seeks playmakers on the defense's second line, left early on a motorized cart with a foot injury that will require more tests. ... LB Princeton Fuimaono injured his hamstring.