The first thing Bruce Ellington saw when Pharoh Cooper joined South Carolina’s wide receivers was “an athlete.” The second thing he saw was a little bit of himself.
Cooper, the freshman wide receiver who had his first catch as a Gamecock and debuted at Wildcat quarterback last week against Kentucky, came to South Carolina with almost exactly the same resume as Ellington — high school quarterback and defensive back and four-star prospect.
“That’s one guy I can follow the footsteps of,” Cooper said.
Even if Cooper’s path did start in a different spot. He was initially recruited to South Carolina as a defensive back. After leading Havelock (N.C.) High to a 31-1 record and back-to-back state titles in his final two seasons and being named the offensive MVP of the Shrine Bowl after compiling 253 yards in that game, Cooper spent his summer “doing all these defensive drills getting ready to play defensive back.”
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South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier always wanted Cooper as an offensive player, Gamecocks wide receiver coach and recruiting coordinator Steve Spurrier Jr. said.
“The head coach said, ‘This guy needs to play offense.’ I said, ‘Wait a minute, he wants to hear DB so let’s make sure we are recruiting him as that,’ ” Spurrier Jr. said. “That’s what he wanted to play, but if you have ever seen him with the ball in his hands, he’s a very talented player.”
Cooper lasted two weeks on defense before Spurrier moved him to wide receiver.
“I guess coach Spurrier saw me catching some punts, decided he wanted me on offense,” Cooper said. “I guess it’s been a great idea for me. It’s working out so far.”
He caught a 12-yard pass against the Wildcats and gained 26 yards on two carries out of the Wildcat quarterback position.
“When I first got into the offense, I really didn’t know anything at all,” he said. “The first couple weeks, I would go out there at practice and run some routes and get talked to by (wide receivers coach Steve Spurrier Jr.) saying, ‘That was the wrong route,’ but I have been picking up the offense lately. I’m at 100 percent now.”
He caught up on the team’s playbook during extra meetings with offensive graduate assistant Seth Strickland and Spurrier Jr. and by sticking near Ellington whenever he could.
“He can run; he can catch; he’s got an intelligent presence to him,” Spurrier Jr. said. “He’s a player.”
Ellington has enjoyed passing along lessons learned from Ace Sanders, a fourth-round selection by the Jacksonville Jaguars earlier this year, he said.
Sanders “helped me out a lot, and I’m basically just telling Pharoh the things I learned,” Ellington said. “As a leader and a receiver, I have to help him out. I think he’s going to have a bright future here at USC.”
That future might be starting now. Cooper might take over Victor Hampton’s job as the No. 1 punt returner this week against Arkansas, and Spurrier indicated he might eventually overtake Ellington as the team’s top kickoff returner.
“I really didn’t think special teams was as important as it was,” Cooper said. “Now that I look at it, special teams is very important. If I have the opportunity, I am going to take advantage of it.”
Cooper is listed as Ellington’s top backup at the “Z” wide receiver position entering Saturday’s game.
“I think he’s a ball player. I think he’s a real ball player,” Spurrier said. “Good kid, does everything you ask. I think his time is coming here.”
Senior quarterback Connor Shaw agrees.
“He works really hard,” Shaw said. “I am glad he is getting his opportunity to play, and he will get more opportunities in the future. I think you can look for No. 11 out on the field.”