USC Gamecocks Football

August 26, 2014

Rise of Pharoh: Coaches seek smart usage of versatile star in the offense

The spot where Pharoh Cooper made the smallest impact last year is where he is expected to make the largest this season.

It feels as though Pharoh Cooper has more than 26 offensive opportunities in his South Carolina career.

South Carolina’s sophomore wide receiver has been one of the givens of the Gamecocks’ preseason practices. He is expected to earn a starting role and follow through on those expectations despite having one college start in his short career.

“Pharoh Cooper we really think is going to be an outstanding receiver,” coach Steve Spurrier said.

It’s likely that’s not all he’s going to be, either. Cooper – who threw three passes last season, including one for a touchdown, and rushed 20 times, mostly out of the Wildcat quarterback position – is South Carolina’s starting punt returner and kick returner and is expected to fill the Wildcat quarterback role again this year.

“I hope to see a lot (of Wildcat),” Cooper said. “I can’t really say how much I am going to play, but if I get in, I am going to give it my all.”

The 5-foot-11, 201-pounder rushed for 202 yards, passed for 29 and added 399 returning punts and kickoffs last year.

“Obviously, we want to use him a lot, but we don’t want to run him into the ground,” Spurrier said. “After you use him in the Wildcat one or two times, everybody knows, he’s going in there. But we’ll try to mix it around, put him in some different spots.”

Special teams coach Joe Robinson is happy to share Cooper, he said, although the team’s depth chart lists no backups at either punt return or kickoff return.

“I think it’s important for the team to have a number of guys we feel like can be successful (returning kicks),” Robinson said. “I’ve been through a bunch of seasons, and it’s tough to go through a season with one guy doing both of those jobs regardless of how much he is playing elsewhere, so we need to create some depth there.”

The spot where Cooper made the smallest impact last year is where he is expected to make the largest this season – wide receiver. The former high school quarterback caught three passes, one against Kentucky and two against Coastal Carolina, for 54 yards a year ago.

This season, he will fill the slot receiver spot vacated when Bruce Ellington opted for early entry into the NFL Draft. Ellington, who had 49 catches for 775 yards last year, left plenty of room for Cooper to make an impact this season.

“I wouldn’t really say it’s pressure,” Cooper said. “With Bruce leaving, somebody has to fill the role. I am just going to keep working hard to keep that spot.”

Cooper is working exclusively at the slot receiver position, which has helped him become completely familiar with the playbook, something he could not claim a season ago.

“My freshman year, I was still learning the coverages. Now, I know where to be, I know where the DB is going to be, so that helps me a lot,” he said. “I can do a lot of stuff from the Z. I can go anywhere, really.”

The biggest problem for South Carolina will be the judicious deployment of the Havelock, N.C., native.

“We don’t want to wear him out completely, but he’s a young man that’s in really good shape,” Spurrier said. “He doesn’t seem to tire too much.”

For Cooper, it all seems natural despite his youth.

“Once I got started playing (last year),” he said, “I was like, ‘I have been playing football all my life. I should be doing this.’ ”

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