EWU's All-American receiver Cooper Kupp had zero FBS scholarship offers coming out of Yakima's Davis High School. How did the Huskies and Cougars miss on a surefire NFL draft pick?
In an alternate universe, if Washington State had been a little further along in its coaching transition during Cooper Kupp’s senior football season at Yakima’s Davis High School, there’s a chance Kupp, Eastern Washington’s star receiver, might have found himself lining up alongside WSU receivers Gabe Marks and River Cracraft in the Cougars’ season opener against the Eagles at Martin Stadium this Saturday.
Kupp, who’s averaged 122.4 receiving yards per game during his career at EWU, would have been a great fit for Mike Leach’s receiver-friendly Air Raid offense.
The Cougs also have a good track record with recruiting and developing walk-on talent in the Leach era, and back in the fall of 2011, when Leach was just taking over from Paul Wulff at WSU, Kupp was an under-recruited senior receiver at Davis High who would have jumped at any chance to play college football. Because when Kupp’s senior football season ended in November 2011, he had no scholarship offers and no idea what his future held.
So if the Cougs – who were assembling a new staff under Leach at the time – had called to offer him a preferred walk-on spot, Kupp just might have accepted.
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Things are a little different now as Kupp begins his senior year at EWU. He’s no longer the skinny kid who has to try extra hard to attract the attention of power brokers at the next level. The All-American receiver could have gone out for the NFL draft this year. Instead, despite being projected as a possible second round selection, Kupp opted to return to EWU for his senior season.
At 6-foot-2, 205 pounds, Kupp finally has a body to match the football acumen, game instincts and route-running precision that so impressed his high school offensive coordinator Jay Dumas, a Mike Price-era WSU receiver who was responsible for connecting Kupp with EWU coach Beau Baldwin.
Dumas tried to sell Kupp to his alma mater too. He talked to some of Paul Wulff’s assistants in the lead up to Kupp’s senior year, but couldn’t get anyone to bite.
“It was a combination of things,” Dumas says now, when asked to explain why Kupp went so unrecruited out of high school. “He was still growing physically, and even when he was a senior, he wasn’t an imposing figure. And he was coming from a program that, until his junior year, hadn’t had a winning season since 1969.
“So it was a combination of him being one of the pioneers of getting that program back on track, and that he was a late grower. I think people saw him having success when they came to camp, but that eyeball test held him back a little bit.”
Physically, Cooper was a late bloomer. When he began his freshman year of high school, Cooper stood at 5-foot-4, 115 pounds “with ankle weights” he says.
“When kids were starting to get their muscles and ‘man body,’ he was very far from that,” said Craig Kupp, Cooper’s father. “He was a little kid out there with developing young men, and that’s tough mentally.”
Cooper was still on the small side – 6-foot-1, 180 pounds — when he entered his senior season. He tried not to let that derail his college football dream. In the months leading up to his final high school season, Cooper worked the summer football camp circuit, sent out tape to a long list of college coaches, publicized himself through a recruiting service, and even had his grandfather, former UW offensive lineman Jake Kupp – a ninth round draft selection by the Dallas Cowboys in 1964 – work his Husky connections to try to get former UW coach Steve Sarkisian to give Cooper a chance.
Perplexingly, despite their family pedigree – Cooper’s grandfather played in the NFL for a decade, while his father played quarterback at Pacific Lutheran University and was selected by the New York Giants in the fifth round of the 1990 NFL Draft – the Kupps couldn’t seem to get any college coaches to respond to material they sent out about Cooper.
“The toughest part was walking off the field after my last high school game with no concrete evidence that I’d be playing at the next level,” said Kupp, who now holds seven FCS records and has won both the Jerry Rice Award (top freshman FCS player) and the Walter Payton Award (most outstanding FCS offensive player) during his career at EWU.
It seemed as if no Division I football coach in the country was willing to take a chance on an undersized kid with big stats and soft hands who had helped lead his high school team to back-to-back winning seasons after more than four decades of irrelevance.
“We couldn’t even get people to say, ‘Come here and you can walk on,’” Cooper said. “We couldn’t get ahold of anyone. That’s was the most disheartening part. As much effort as we were putting out, saying ‘We just want to know where we stand with you,’ we couldn’t get anything back. Just nothing.”
His best asset: Intangibles
Another reason why Cooper was so lightly recruited stems from how his greatest assets have always been qualities that don’t usually show up on the stat sheet and are difficult to quantify.
Dumas says Cooper has always been driven by preparation and is eternally “determined to out-prepare the people around him.” That hasn’t changed since Cooper left Davis in 2012.
“He grows every year in an amazing way,” says EWU’s Baldwin. “That’s just his mindset. He believes with all his heart that he’s never gonna be a finished product, and he just doesn’t stop. It’s a rare quality.”
In high school, Cooper spent hours watching film with Dumas, studying the entire offense, dissecting defenses and learning to see the game from a coach’s perspective.
Dumas quickly realized that even though there were others who were bigger and faster than Cooper, the scrawny little receiver had football instincts unrivalled by anyone on the team.
“He’s one of those guys, he’s always in the right place at the right time,” Dumas said. “By his sophomore year, he was doing everything right. He’s a student of the game, he understood what we were trying to accomplish at an early age, and he made plays every time we threw it to him. We couldn’t keep him off the field.”
Some of that meticulousness comes from Cooper having to compensate for his lack of size. He was forced to hone in on fundamentals and become a precise, tactical route runner early on in his football career because he didn’t have the physical attributes to overpower more athletic defensive backs.
“For me to compete, I wasn’t blessed with speed and I couldn’t just run past someone, so I had to figure out, ‘How am I gonna create separation?’ And technique-wise, making sure I had that as a fundamental base of how to run routes,” Cooper said. “Then, eventually, the speed came and that amplified things.”
No longer the underdog
Neither UW nor WSU recruited Kupp out of high school.
As the Cougars gear up to face Kupp and the Eagles this weekend, Leach freely admits that they whiffed on Kupp, who, in five years at EWU, has blossomed into one of the finest receiving talents to come out of the state of Washington in recent years.
“We probably should have taken him. But it was early on and everything was kind of a blur,” Leach said, reflecting back on the frenetic first few weeks of his tenure as WSU coach in December 2011. “I don’t recall if we had any conversations. I know we definitely would have liked him to walk on.”
The Cougs did eventually put out some feelers about Kupp. But they came in a little too late. Dumas recalls hearing, late in 2011, that WSU was interested in having Kupp join the team as a walk-on.
By the time the Cougs started asking about Kupp, the receiver had already committed to EWU.
The Eagles offered Kupp a scholarship about three weeks after his senior football season ended, beating out Idaho State for his commitment.
Kupp’s loyalty to EWU has held steady since that day. He redshirted his first year and then took the FCS by storm in 2013, amassing an FCS freshman record 93 receptions, 1,691 yards and 21 touchdowns and winning the Jerry Rice Award. He followed up with an equally impressive sophomore season to lead the FCS with 104 receptions as he and Vernon Adams lit up Big Sky scoreboards.
Adams transferred to Oregon in 2014 in search of competition on a higher level, but Kupp never once considered following in his quarterback’s footsteps and leaving EWU for a bigger school.
“Eastern was the school that believed in me coming out of high school and put the time into developing me, so leaving was never an option for me,” Kupp said. “I could never turn my back on these coaches or these guys. I was going to be an Eastern Eagle through and through.”
That’s the same mindset that ultimately compelled Kupp to return to EWU for his senior season this year instead of leaving early to declare for the NFL Draft.
The receiver modestly says he came back to school because he wanted to finish out his career at EWU with some of his best friends and graduate with his degree.
Dumas’ take is this: “It’s his unselfishness. That’s why he came back. He’s loyal maybe to a fault. I don’t think he wanted to let his teammates down because he realizes he’s been a big part of their success and he can help the team. … he wants to win a national championship at EWU. That’s what’s driving him every day.”
This season, the Cougars will be ruing their recruiting miss as they game plan to take on a receiver that Baldwin hails as the best football player he’s ever coached.
Teams have tried a multitude of ways to stop Kupp, who ranks second all-time in FCS history with 56 touchdown catches. But in his entire college career, he’s only been held under 50 receiving yards in two games.
The Eagles are 0-3 all-time against WSU. But they’ve also never played the Cougs with a surefire NFL receiver in their lineup.
The Cougars know they have their work cut out for them against Kupp.
“They move him around, and it’s very difficult to say you’re gonna take him away,” said WSU defensive coordinator Alex Grinch. “No one’s been able to do it and part of it is what they do, aligning him at various places. … That adds to the difficulty we’ll face. They pose a real challenge, and their track record both in their conference and versus Pac-12 opponents gets your attention. It’s scary business for us.”