COLUMBIA - Pharoh Cooper hopes he gave a glimpse of things to come to the small crowd gathered at Williams-Brice Stadium on Saturday morning for South Carolina's first scrimmage of preseason camp.
The sophomore receiver glided across the stadium turf and just as it seemed the ball was destined to be overthrown, Cooper reached out with one hand in full stride to snag the throw from backup quarterback Perry Orth in front of safety T.J. Gurley. After making the catch, he ran the final 35 yards to complete the 55-yard scoring play.
"It surprised me a little bit," Cooper said while describing the catch. "I just prayed to God. It was one of those catches where you get lucky sometimes."
Steve Spurrier is not so sure the catch would have been made in a regular-season game, but that didn't diminish the ability the 5-11, 200-pound Cooper showed on the play.
"I think T.J could have clobbered him in a real game. He had him covered pretty well and he sort of pulled off, which we sort of encourage our players to do," Spurrier said.
Cooper and the coaching staff hope to see more of that electrifying talent this season. A year ago as a freshman, Cooper began the season playing defensive back before being moved over to the offensive side of the ball. He played in 11 games - his only start was at Tennessee - and only had three catches for 54 yards and one touchdown.
The slow start was due to having to learn the playbook in the middle of the season and not getting a handle on it early.
"I've grasped the whole playbook and learned more coverages. My freshman year, I was still learning the coverages and who was going to be where," Cooper said. "Now that I've progressed through the spring, and with the help of the coaches, I know where to be and I know where the DBs are going to be."
His biggest impact came as a wildcat quarterback and in the return game. He gained 202 yards on 20 carries and was 2-for-3 passing for 29 yards and a game-sealing 26-yard touchdown to Brandon Wilds in the 31-17 win over Clemson.
But he expects to have a larger role as a receiver this fall. With Moncks Corner native Bruce Ellington in the NFL, Cooper along with junior Shaq Roland and seniors Damiere Byrd and Nick Jones, are expected to be the first four guys in the receiver rotation.
"I've been working hard every day, 100 percent, giving my all, so I feel I earned a spot. But earning it and keeping it are two different things. We have a lot of great receivers, so I'm going to keep working hard to keep my starting spot," Cooper said. "(My goal in 2014) is just to get better as a receiver and an all-around player. I still want to get better with my routes, develop more chemistry with the QBs and work on my blocking. All the little things to become a great player."
Spurrier believes Cooper is ready to be a major contributor.
"Oh yeah, he's done well," Spurrier said after Saturday's scrimmage. "He's ready to be a starter we believe, certainly, he and Shaq Roland."
Cooper will primarily play the "Z" receiver spot, which is the inside slot receiver in the Gamecocks offense. That will make him responsible to contributing to the running game by blocking linebackers and safeties as well being a threat in the passing game.
"With the 'Z,' you've got to go block the linebackers and safeties," Cooper said. "I'm one of the bigger receivers we have. At the 'Z', you can go in motion and get into the backfield or even line up in the backfield. You can do a lot of stuff at the 'Z.' We're always off the ball."
He also hasn't given up hope on getting to play more wildcat quarterback as well. His touches there might be limited with Brendan Nosovitch, who was mulling a transfer from the program. Spurrier has repeatedly mentioned Nosovitch as a potential wildcat option in the preseason.
"I hope we see a lot (of wildcat), but I can't really say how much I'm going to play in the wildcat," Cooper said. "If I get in, I'll give it my all. I want to make an impact anywhere I'm at."
South Carolina's Pharoh Cooper had a productive freshman season last year with 202 yards rushing, 54 receiving, 40 on punt returns and 359 on kick returns. He also completed 2 of 3 passes for 29 yards and a touchdown. (Aiken Standard/Allen Sharpe)×