Pharoh Cooper acquiring multiple roles in second year

jkendall@thestate.comMarch 31, 2014 

Pharoh Cooper carries the ball at South Carolina's Saturday practice at Williams-Brice Stadium


Pharoh Cooper came to Columbia determined to be a defensive back.

This fall, the South Carolina sophomore will have four jobs, and none will be on defense. The 5-foot-11, 200-pound Havelock, N.C., native moved from cornerback to wide receiver in his first week on campus last year and has not stopped acquiring new roles since.

“That is probably one of the best moves I have made in my lifetime,” Cooper said of the switch from defense to offense.

In 2014, he is expected to be the Gamecocks starter at slot receiver, kickoff returner and punt returner – not to mention their Wildcat quarterback. Cooper caught three passes last year for 54 yards, but he’s already being looked at as the heir apparent to Bruce Ellington, who led the Gamecocks in receptions last year while playing mostly in the slot.

“When Bruce left, that kind of got my head straight that I have a chance to start at that position. So coming into the spring, I want to work my tail off,” Cooper said. “I’ve got the starting spot. Now, I just want to keep it.”

There seems little danger of Cooper not being at wide receiver unless he’s behind center as the Wildcat quarterback. He rushed 20 times for 202 yards and a touchdown and completed 2-of-3 passes for 29 yards and a touchdown out of the role last year, and he has relieved starting quarterback Dylan Thompson several times during practice drills this spring.

“I feel like I will play a lot of Wildcat quarterback this year now that Connor (Shaw) is gone,” Cooper said.

Wide receivers coach Steve Spurrier Jr. is not worried about overload despite Cooper’s youth.

“He’ll be fine. He’s a smart, mature kid who can handle it all, and we’ll throw a little bit more at him,” Spurrier Jr. said. “He doesn’t spend a lot of time with coach (G.A.) Mangus or the head coach doing QB drills. When he goes in at QB, they snap it and he takes off with it.”

Cooper is being treated like a veteran this spring as the coaches are limiting his practice snaps in favor of more inexperienced players who need more work or have more to prove to the coaching staff.

“He’s still young, that’s the crazy thing,” Thompson said. “He’s just so talented. He’s a great guy. He’s fun to play with.”

When Cooper came to Columbia, he thought he’d follow in the footsteps of Stephon Gilmore, a high school quarterback who switched to defensive back and was the No. 10 pick in the 2012 NFL draft. While he’s no longer playing defensive back, he does remind at least one USC coach of Gilmore.

“He doesn’t like to mess around. The only difference between him and Gilmore is Pharoh will give you a smile every now and then, where Gilmore was just all business,” strength and conditioning coach Joe Connolly said. “Pharoh is all business too, but he’ll give you a smile every now and again.”

If Cooper can be the special teams spark South Carolina has been missing since Ace Sanders, he’ll bring a lot of smiles as well. Last year, he returned 16 kickoffs for 359 yards and nine punts for 40 yards, and he’s expected to start again at both spots this season.

Cooper is not worried about fatigue, he said.

“No,” he said. “I’m going to keep going.”

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