COLUMBIA — Pharoh Cooper received exactly one phone call from the Los Angeles Rams, from a special teams coach asking to see some film. That was the only contact between the organization and the South Carolina receiver until Saturday, when they added him to a skill-position haul in the NFL draft.
“Caught me by surprise,” the two-time All-SEC player told Rams media on a conference call.
Projected as a second- or third-round selection, Cooper instead lasted until the fourth round as the 117th overall pick. He joins a Rams draft class that includes quarterback Jared Goff from California, the No. 1 overall pick, as well as receiver Mike Thomas of Southern Miss and tight ends Tyler Higbee of Western Kentucky and Temarrack Hemingway of South Carolina State.
And as the 12th receiver taken — behind some fellow SEC wideouts like Georgia’s Malcolm Mitchell and Auburn’s Ricardo Louis, whose numbers he eclipsed last season — the 5-11, 203-pound Cooper feels he has plenty to prove.
“Absolutely,” he said. “(Friday) night, I couldn’t get any sleep. I was banking on going second or third (round), honestly, just from hearing everything. But this is absolutely motivation. That’s all it is, motivation, to prove I should have been a first-round pick or a second-round pick. But I ended up in the right spot, I believe, and we’re going to see how it goes from there.”
Cooper was one of three former Gamecocks drafted. Offensive tackle Brandon Shell, a Goose Creek native, went in the fifth round to the Jets, and tight end Jerell Adams from Pinewood Prep went in the sixth round to the Giants. Undrafted former USC players who signed free-agent deals included tailback Brandon Wilds and defensive tackle Gerald Dixon Jr. with the Falcons, and safety Isaiah Johnson with the Buccaneers.
But the first to go was Cooper, who led the Gamecocks last season with 973 receiving yards and eight touchdowns, and left school after his junior season. The all-purpose player, who came to USC as a defensive back, also rushed and passed for touchdowns with the Gamecocks, in addition to returning punts.
“He’s their favorite player, their best player, and they figure out a way to get him the ball,” Rams head coach Jeff Fisher told reporters in L.A. “His statistics — I mean, they’re obvious. You watch him, he’s throwing the ball, his return skills, his run after catch, his ability to get open. He’s a strong player. We just felt like he would give us an additional target inside.”
Rams general manager Les Snead said he envisioned using Cooper in the slot, the position he played most at South Carolina, while Thomas was better suited to line up on the outside. Los Angeles certainly can use the help after finishing last in the NFL in passing offense last season, its final campaign in St. Louis before returning to Southern California.
“I look at it just as an opportunity to get on the field,” Cooper said. “I’m going to go out there, work hard, do my best. Wherever they play me, I’m going to try to excel.”
Cooper, who watched the draft at his parents’ home in Havelock, N.C., will travel to Los Angeles next week for the team’s rookie orientation. The Rams’ mandatory minicamp is June 14-16. And if the former high school quarterback is asked to reprise his role at USC and throw a pass on occasion?
“If they need me to throw the ball, I’ll throw the ball for them,” Cooper said. “Whatever they need me to do, I’ll do it. I’m just happy to be part of the organization. I’m ready to start playing now.”