Cooper's Time is Coming Fast

ATHENS - Ever since Michael Cooper cast his lot with Georgia, there has been anticipation.

The Screven County product thought about transferring during his redshirt season last year after seeing so many backs ahead of him on the depth chart.

"I guess I understand that, considering the type of attention he had coming out of high school, and the expectations," Georgia coach Mark Richt said. "And how he was wondering if he was ever really going to get a chance to show what he can do. I could see where a young guy could be thinking that."

But Michael Cooper's time is coming. Fast.

Starting tailback Tony Milton is increasingly doubtful to even play Saturday, let alone start, thanks to a bruise under his knee that has aggravated calcium deposits from a broken leg in high school. Any contact causes serious pain for Milton, known for his toughness.

"Tony's not doing very well, quite frankly," Richt said. "I'm worried about it. It's an injury that could become a chronic situation."

With Milton likely out, Cooper has moved to the front of the line, sliding past junior Ronnie Powell.

"Every test to this point, he's done extremely well," Richt said. "Hopefully he can take it to another level."

Running backs coach Ken Rucker is confident in what Cooper can do and what he offers.

"(He is) a big guy that can run and is pretty fast," Rucker said. "I think he's established himself as that kind of runner. He's a big back, he's got some speed."

Cooper has yet to start a game but is Georgia's leading rusher with 135 yards on 17 carries, a nifty average of 7.9 yards-per-carry. He whetted some appetites against Clemson when he burst up the middle and then outside for a dazzling 37-yard touchdown run that was called back because of a penalty.

But the explosiveness he displayed was attention-getting.

"I felt good," he said. "Our offensive line, they were blocking great the hole day. I was just happy because they were still doing it late in the fourth quarter. It made me feel good."

Now his patience is paying off.

Richt saw that Cooper was frustrated last year as the staff chose to redshirt him rather than give him only bits of playing time.

"Musa Smith's there, ripping and snorting," Richt explained. "Tony Milton's ahead of him because he knows what to do and he's a very physical blocker."

Still, it wasn't easy for the all-stater and national recruit to take.

"He'd gotten a lot of publicity going in, and people were waiting to see him," said Richt, pointing out that Cooper made progress despite his frustration. "He got better and better as the season went on. In the spring, he began to improve steadily. He was not a guy where one day the light turned on and he was doing great. He was gradually getting better at everything we wanted him to do. I was pleased, and I was saying that all along."

But Cooper then got only one carry in the spring game.

"That hurt his feelings, so he was a little bent out of shape," Richt said. "I guess it wasn't moving as quickly as he wanted it to move."

The two talked, and Richt did his best to convince Cooper that he was very much in Georgia's plans.

"I said, 'Hey, you got a chance, you should be the No. 2 tailback for at least the first three ballgames; that's plenty of time to show us what you got,'" Richt said. "I think he just needed us to say, 'Look, we believe in you, don't get down, you need to stay.'"

Said Rucker: "He never dropped off as far as his attitude and work ethic. His work on the field, he never missed a step."

Cooper said he had no real transfer plan, but was worried about where he fit in at Georgia.

"It didn't come to that," he said.

Cooper has had to battle more than a loaded depth chart. In his first physical at Georgia, he was diagnosed as carrying the sickle cell trait, which meant he had a sickle cell gene. Sickle cell anemia affects red blood cells and the delivery of oxygen to the cells.

The biggest impact for an athlete is endurance. For Cooper, that meant Georgia's staff keeping an extra eye on him during offseason conditioning and mat drills, the team's rigorous program.

So far, he's simply cruising.

"I can't think of a time when he really got to the point where we had to pull him out of anything," said Richt.

It's clearly a topic Cooper prefers not to talk about.

"Totally overblown," is his estimation. "That hasn't come into play. I feel great. (Somebody) got a whiff of it and everybody's harping on it and writing on it.

"There's nothing wrong with me."

He hopes to prove that Saturday.

Michael Cooper Size: 5-11, 223
Class: Redshirt freshman 
Major: arts and sciences 
Position: tailback 
High school: Screven County 
High school stats: 5,086 career rushing yards and 64 touchdowns; 2,352 yards and 38 touchdowns as a senior.

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