COLUMBIA — Pharoh Cooper figured he’d play defensive back at South Carolina. It’s the position he was recruited for, the place all the colleges sending letters in the mail wanted him to play. No reason the Gamecocks would be any different.
Then Steve Spurrier saw the youngster return a punt.
“I was doing all these defensive drills, getting ready to play defensive back,” Cooper said. “Then coach Spurrier saw me catching punts, said he wanted to get me on the offensive side of the ball because he wanted me on offense from the get-go from high school.”
A major, early-career change can be a difficult adjustment to handle. Cooper didn’t mind. He played quarterback his senior season at Havelock (N.C.) High, leading the Rams to their second straight Class AAA state title.
Cooper had a knack for scoring touchdowns, but at 5-11 most teams thought his lack of height was better suited for cornerback.
South Carolina was different.
The Gamecocks let Cooper play receiver, a position where he was plenty comfortable.
As a junior, during Havelock’s first state championship run, Cooper caught 65 passes for 1,285 yards and 14 touchdowns. In the Shrine Bowl of the Carolinas following his senior season, Cooper earned offensive MVP honors.
“Switching from defense to offense, it’s been a great idea for me,” Cooper said. “It’s working out good so far.”
Before his first collegiate season, Cooper said he met with receivers coach Steve Spurrier Jr. two to three days each week to watch film and learn plays. He’s also gotten help from junior Bruce Ellington, who made the same transition from high school quarterback to college receiver.
The extra work is beginning to pay off.
Cooper got his most substantial playing time Saturday against Kentucky, running two plays out of the Wildcat for 26 yards. (He also spent time at Havelock as a running back.) The freshman has brought a new dimension to the Gamecocks’ offense, one Spurrier wants to use more — perhaps starting with this weekend’s trip to Arkansas.
“Yeah, I think he needs to get out there more. He needs to get out there more,” Spurrier said. “Pharoh, we think is a good player, he’s just now getting ready to go. So he should be out there more.”
USC’s offense hasn’t needed much help this season, averaging 31 points per game.
The coaching staff still wants to find ways for Cooper to contribute, and special teams may be the best avenue to the field as a freshman.
Cooper took first-team reps at punt return earlier this week, ahead of Victor Hampton.
He’s still behind Ellington on the depth chart at kick returner, but is ready to go if called upon.
Cooper doesn’t mind finding nonconventional ways to help the Gamecocks. Only a freshman, Cooper isn’t picky.
“I really didn’t think special teams was as important as it was, now that I look at it,” Cooper said. “Special teams is very important. Just punt return and kick return, it’s something that I have a chance to do. If I have the opportunity, I’m going to take advantage of it. I’m just going to keep working.”
Follow Ryan Wood on Twitter @rwood_SC.