“Our way of generating explosive plays the last two seasons because of the skill set of our guys on the perimeter of our skill guys has been we were going to have to throw the ball down the field... Now, that’s something a lot more difficult to do than to throw a bubble pass to a kid, make two guys miss and take it 58 yards for a touchdown. So we understand that. I think you saw the offensive recruitment kind of gear towards that, and we needed guys with big-play potential that you didn’t need to just chuck the ball down the field to achieve that.” — Texas head coach Tom Herman on National Signing Day
The Texas Longhorns were one of two programs nationally that failed to produce a play of 50 yards or longer during the 2018 season. As Herman mentioned 10 days ago, the Horns instead relied on big-bodied wide receivers like Collin Johnson and Lil’Jordan Humphrey to make plays, often by running some version of four verticals — Herman said Texas called it around 80 times last year.
Conference rival Oklahoma, by comparison, was able to produce big plays by throwing short passes to speedsters like Hollywood Brown in order move down the field in large chunks. That’s where the Horns want to be, as those plays are much higher percentage than having to gain all the yardage through the air.
Enter Saturday’s pledge, St. Louis (Mo.) Trinity Catholic athlete Mookie Cooper, who will play slot receiver at Texas in addition to motioning into the backfield to take handoffs or carry the ball on jet sweeps. Envision him moving from the slot into the backfield and then running a wheel route against a linebacker.
That position is a key one in Herman’s offense and represents the ideal at the slot position by creating mismatches for defenses. So far, Herman simply hasn’t had a player who could effectively play that position. Last season, that was particularly apparent as the coaching staff moved the 6’4, 225-pound Humphrey into the slot due to his elite agility and ability to create separation against man and zone coverage.
In the 2019 recruiting class, Herman and his staff took major steps towards addressing the program’s needs there by landing Gatorade National Player of the Year Jake Smith and do-it-all athlete Jordan Whittington, who will receive plenty of opportunities at running back this spring as an early enrollee.
Cooper has similarities to both players, but also brings his own unique skill set to the table. Like Whittington did for Cuero, Cooper does it all for Trinity Catholic, which also produced 2019 wide receiver signee Marcus Washington, playing cornerback and wide receiver in addition to carrying the football and serving as a return man.
Variously listed at 5’10 or 5’11 and around 180 pounds, Cooper is on the short side for a top-100 prospect, but he makes up for it with his toughness and athleticism. In fact, the start of Cooper’s junior film shows him making plays on defense and blocking for his teammates.
Where he really shines, however, is with his lateral quickness and short-area burst. With his explosiveness, Cooper compares favorably to Smith, but also shows more jump-cut ability than Smith to make defenders miss in small spaces. Now, that’s not to demean Smith in that regard, but Cooper is so highly rated precisely because that’s the most elite element of his skill set.
The low center of gravity possessed by Cooper, combined with his electric agility, makes him extremely difficult to tackle at the high school level. Judging by his offer list and rankings, the expectation is for those skills to translate to the Forty Acres.
One area to watch in the coming weeks is what Cooper does on the track — last spring, he set a personal record with an 11.10 100m time. Is that reflective of his top-end ability or just a sampling of what he’s capable of doing? The answer to that question will define the ceiling of his explosive ability in college. It’s a good time, just not elite.
Of course, there may be some athletic potential left with Cooper, too, as he’s well built for a slot receiver, but he’s nowhere near as maxed out physically as someone like Whittington, who benefited tremendously from an older brother who is a personal trainer.
And that’s exciting, as Texas high school football players, especially those from powerhouse programs, have developed a well-earned reputation for often possessing limited physical upside because many do have access to the nutrition and training programs to progress rapidly at that level.
Since Cooper doesn’t fit that mold, it suggests that he could make significant strides under strength and conditioning coach Yancy McKnight at Texas.
Including Washington and 2018 signee Ayodele Adeoye, Texas has now added three prospects in the last three cycles from the St. Louis area. Trinity Catholic in particular has produced a number of prospects in recent years, so a strong relationship with that coaching staff could benefit the Longhorns moving forward. Getting on the radar of other prospects in the area is helpful — keep an eye on prospects from Lutheran Of St Charles County, which has a handful of prospects like rising 2021 defensive tackle Gabriel Rubio, who was invited to the Junior Day this weekend.
Credit running backs coach Stan Drayton for helping in that regard, as he was the primary recruiter with Cooper and has a history of success in St. Louis, dating back to the recruitment of Ezekiel Elliott.
Just as Texas is experiencing increasing success in California and Arizona, look for the Longhorns to continue targeting prospects from St. Louis to fill needs.