Pharoh Cooper has a knack for fielding a punt and finding an opening for a big play.
With Ace Sanders' departure to the NFL, Cooper sees an opening in South Carolina's punt return game.
The freshman from Havelock, N.C., has a goal to start as a punt returner in his first year as a Gamecock.
"If I go out there and compete like I know I can and listen to the coaches, everything should fall into place if I work hard," Cooper said. "I will have the opportunity to start."
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to The State
Cooper (6-0, 197) signed with the Gamecocks in February and enrolled in June as a defensive back, but he excelled at Havelock High for what he could do with the ball in his hands.
As a quarterback, he led the Rams to a second-straight Class 3A state title. He threw for 2,948 yards and 26 touchdowns and ran for 1,283 yards and 20 more scores. He also returned three punts for touchdowns — from 82, 67 and 37 yards.
Cooper then played quarterback, receiver and punt returner in the Shrine Bowl, finishing with 243 yards, a touchdown and MVP honors.
He did so well that Rivals bumped him one notch to a four-star prospect.
USC special teams coach Joe Robinson said Cooper will be given the chance to play a role on punt returns.
"He's got tremendous potential," Robinson said. "We'll see if he can get out here and realize some of that potential in the fall. He'll certainly get a big-time look."
Cooper expects to begin his career at cornerback, but his main goal is to make an impact on special teams.
Sanders last season set the USC record for punt return yards in a season with 429. He averaged 15.3 yards on 28 punt returns and was first in the SEC and fourth in the nation.
He set the bar very high, Cooper said.
"Ace was so quick," he said. "He had great vision on the field. He set up blocks. He was so elusive."
Cooper touts his own vision, cutting prowess and ability to get downfield quickly after the catch.
He turned to a former and future teammate for advice on how to prepare for the transition to South Carolina.
Gamecocks offensive lineman Corey Robinson, who played with Cooper at Havelock High, had simple advice for the incoming freshman.
"He said the best thing is to be in shape when you come down here," Cooper said.
Cooper has been doing defensive back drills and working on punt returns, footwork and conditioning since January. He also played for Havelock's baseball team.
Leaving the eastern North Carolina town of Havelock for Columbia was something he was looking forward to.
"It's bittersweet," he said. "I'm going to miss it but I'm ready to start this new chapter in my life and go play college ball. I'll be ready."