Cooper has high expectations to meet

jkendall@thestate.comAugust 5, 2013 

Before he left South Carolina for an ill-fated season at Southern Miss, defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson developed a coach-crush on linebacker Cedrick Cooper.

Johnson, who now is Auburn’s defensive coordinator, redshirted Cooper during his final season as a Gamecocks assistant, but not because he wasn’t excited about Cooper’s potential. In fact, he raved about it.

When second-year South Carolina linebackers coach Kirk Botkin inherited Cooper, he could tell why.

“He’s pretty now,” Botkin said. “Cooper is very physically gifted just in his appearance.”

A 6-foot-2, 213-pound sophomore, Cooper is expected to be South Carolina’s starting weakside linebacker this season as long as he can return quickly from a hyperextended left elbow suffered in Monday night’s practice.

“He’ll be out three days, maybe a week,” Botkin said. “They are saying it’s not that bad. He said it felt pretty good.”

Cooper — who played in 11 games as a freshman, mostly on special teams — was wearing his left arm in a sling at the conclusion of Monday’s practice. He already has battled back from injury to get to this point. He tore his ACL in bowl practice in December, and the resulting surgery and recovery caused him to miss all of spring practice, but he came to fall camp 100 percent healthy.

“He looks like he’s moving better than he has,” Botkin said. “Cedrick has always been able to run straight ahead, but just the quickness and lateral movement, he looks better than I have seen him.”

Feels better, too.

“Sometimes I forget I even have the brace on,” Cooper said. “I don’t want to let my injury hold me back, and I don’t want people to think because I have had an injury that it’s going to hold me back.”

Cooper, a Lithonia, Ga., native, is trying to hold off sophomore Marcquis Roberts, and freshman linebackers David Johnson, Skai Moore and Jonathan Walton, for the starting weakside linebacker job. He doesn’t yet see himself as the starter despite his place atop the depth chart, he said.

“We are battling for a position. I never want to put myself ahead of anyone. I can have a good day today and have a bad today tomorrow. It doesn’t matter if I am first or second or fourth, I am going to do what I have to do to help my team.”

Last season, Cooper had one tackle. In his final two seasons at Lithonia High, he had 198 stops, including 28 for loss, and he was considered a three-star prospect when he signed with the Gamecocks over Tennessee, Arkansas, North Carolina and Arkansas, among others.

“I think Cedrick Cooper is really ready to contribute,” coach Steve Spurrier said.

Added Botkin: “It’s going to be back and forth, but he’s penciled in at one right now. It’s going to be very competitive all through camp.”

South Carolina won’t play Johnson and the Tigers this season (barring an unexpected pairing in the SEC title game), so the Gamecocks’ former defensive boss won’t get a chance to see firsthand if his predictions about Cooper come true, but there’s a good chance he’ll be watching from afar.

“He told me I had a good build, and I was coachable,” Cooper said. “That’s one thing I liked about me, I didn’t talk back. Any question I had, I made sure I asked him. He really liked me.”

There is a lot of that going around.

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