Columbia, S.C.—As a high school player in Havelock, N.C., Pharoh Cooper proved that he could do special things with the ball in his hands.
As a quarterback, running back, receiver, kick returner and defensive back, Cooper led Havelock to a pair of state championships and a 31-1 record in his final two seasons. As a junior in 2011 he played wide receiver and caught 65 passes for 1,285 yards. As a senior in 2012 he was moved to quarterback and passed for 2,948 yards and ran for 1,283 yards more.
In the annual Shrine Bowl game between the North Carolina and South Carolina all-stars, Cooper played quarterback, running back, receiver and kick returner. He rolled up 245 all-purpose yards and was selected the offensive MVP.
“We knew he was special,” said Steve Spurrier, Jr., South Carolina’s co-offensive coordinator and wide receivers coach. “And we were fortunate to get him.”
Despite those gaudy high school numbers on offense, Cooper let the South Carolina recruiters know that in college he wanted to be a defensive back. In fact, he wanted to be the next Stephon Gilmore, the two-time All-SEC cornerback at South Carolina who was the No. 10 overall pick in the 2012 NFL Draft.
“South Carolina had put a lot of defensive backs in the NFL,” Cooper said when I met with him after practice recently. “I thought it (playing defensive back) was my best shot at getting to the league.”
But a week into the 2013 fall camp Cooper was not getting a lot of reps with the defensive backs.
“The defensive coaches told me that Pharoh was okay but that he had a lot of work to do,” said head coach Steve Spurrier.
It looked like Cooper’s best hope of playing as a freshman was going to be as a kick returner. One afternoon he was fielding punts with several other players and the head coach happened to walk by.
“He was clearly the best guy we had handling the ball,” said Spurrier. “I just went up to Pharoh and told him that he needed to come over and play wide receiver. We could use him.”
“One of the things Coach Spurrier is always trying to do is to find out who the ball players are,” said Spurrier, Jr. “We need to identify the guys who are really good with the ball in their hands. Then it is our job to get the ball to them. Coach was pretty convinced that Pharoh was that kind of guy.
“And he was right.”
In 2013 Cooper made the Freshman All-SEC team as a kick returner and all-purpose back. He had 655 all-purpose yards (202 rushing, 54 receiving, 40 on punt returns, and 359 on kick returns). He threw a 26-yard touchdown pass and returned a kickoff 55 yards against Clemson.
As a sophomore in 2014 Cooper exploded with 69 catches for 1,136 yards. With 200 yards rushing and 75 on punt returns he finished with 108.5 all-purpose yards per game. He caught nine passes for 170 yards, including a 78-yard catch for a touchdown, in the Independence Bowl win over Miami.
Cooper was an All-SEC first team pick at wide receiver and second team as an all-purpose back.
“To tell you the truth we should have used him a little more, particularly in the wildcat (formation),” said Spurrier. “He’s a natural wide receiver but he could easily play tailback. He’s also a natural passer. He throws a good deep ball.”
With South Carolina breaking in a new quarterback this season, don’t be surprised to see Pharoh Cooper getting the ball at a lot of different places on the field. And it sounds like Cooper is going to be very busy as Spurrier draws up some new ball plays to get his wide receiver the ball with some room to run.
“I’m absolutely fine with that,” said Cooper. “If that’s my role on this team I’m ready to do that.”
This year American Pharoah became the first Triple Crown winner in horse racing since 1978. Spurrier is convinced that he has his own thoroughbred in the man he calls “our South Carolina Pharoh.”
“He’s just a good kid,” Spurrier says of Cooper. “We had five guys who rated an A-plus in our summer conditioning program and he was one of them. If he stays healthy he’ll probably go pro after this year and he’ll be ready.”
Next stop: Tennessee.