At some point, perhaps, the Deontae Cooper story won’t start with his knees. It will, perhaps, open with him starting at running back for the Washington Huskies. That story doesn’t run today.
Today, Cooper is running well. No, it’s better than that: He continues to run well, and he continues to prove to himself and his new coaches that he can — no, he will — be a healthy, viable, productive option out of the backfield in 2014.
“I feel good,” he said after a recent practice. He paused. “I feel great. … It’s been a long time since I’ve felt like this.”
Cooper is the guy everyone roots for — the guy you should root for — and not just because of all the suffering and all the setbacks caused by three torn anterior cruciate ligaments (two in his right knee, one in his left). Cooper is one of the most respected, most mature, most humble players in the UW locker room, and he has a chance next fall to step into one of the team’s most important roles.
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“It’s very realistic,” he said of his goal to be the Huskies’ starting back for the Aug. 30 season opener at Hawaii. “I feel like it’s going to be here before we know it, and when it gets here, I’m going to be ready for it. I know that much.”
Last year was Cooper’s fourth season on campus, his first in full uniform on Saturdays at Husky Stadium. After three long years and three comebacks, he finally played in his first collegiate game, with six carries against Boise State in the grand reopening of the venerable stadium.
He had sporadic carries throughout the season as a backup to Bishop Sankey, and earned the team’s Guy Flaherty Most Inspirational Award, which UW boasts as its oldest and most prestigious honor.
He was, he admitted, cautious in his latest comeback, and who could blame him? But he entered this spring determined to put the injuries behind him for good.
“I want to attack everything,” he said. “I want to be fearless.”
Cooper, listed as a 6-foot, 201-pound senior from Perris, Calif., already has been granted three additional years of eligibility by the NCAA, making 2014 essentially his redshirt sophomore season. He also plans to take graduate-level classes in the fall, after earning his undergraduate degree this spring in communications and ethnic studies.
On the field, Cooper is participating in just his second spring with the Huskies. He graduated high school early to participate in UW’s spring practices in 2010, and he was impressive. In one scrimmage, he had 114 yards on 12 carries, including touchdowns covering 52 and 29 yards.
He gradually built up his confidence throughout the 2013 season, working with a modified practice schedule. By late November, in UW’s 69-27 rout at Oregon State, Cooper had his breakthrough — 166 yards and two touchdowns on 11 carries.
“The Oregon State game just took me over the top, to be honest,” he said. “It let me know, ‘I’m back. I can do this.’ ”
He’s proving to UW’s new coaching staff that he can, too. With fellow running backs Jesse Callier and Dwayne Washington out with what appear to be minor injuries, Cooper and redshirt freshman Lavon Coleman have taken the majority of handoffs the past two weeks. Cooper figures to get the first carry Saturday during the scrimmage portion of UW’s spring game at Husky Stadium (1 p.m., Pac-12 Networks).
“He’s impressive,” UW coach Chris Petersen said. “The fortitude and strength and determination it takes to come back from that, we all have tremendous respect for Coop, no question.”
Petersen said he would like to see Cooper “cut loose” more, but the new coach is confident that will come eventually.
“He definitely has good vision and still has good speed with the things that he’s been through,” said running backs coach Keith Bhonapha, who remembers trying to recruit Cooper to Boise State more than five years ago. At Boise State, Bhonapha coached D.J. Harper, a running back who had two ACL injuries.
“The one thing is you don’t want to baby those guys too much because now it gets into their (head), ‘Am I healthy?’ ” Bhonapha said. “So what I try to do is give him the maximum about of reps he needs to keep improving, but at the same time, in my consciousness, saying, ‘OK, does he really need to be in for those 10 plays in practice?’ ”
Cooper’s injury history, Petersen said, has no bearing on the expectations coaches have for him. And that’s exactly what Cooper wants to hear.
At some point, perhaps, he might even stop hearing the chatter about those knees.
“The only way for that to happen is for me to continue to make plays and show that I’m healthy,” he said. “That’s going to come this season. I’m trying to show people that all that’s behind me, that I’m healthy and I’m ready to go.”
Adam Jude: 206-464-2364
On Twitter: @a_jude