September 11, 2008

Drayton praises selfless Cooper as throwback

Stan Drayton has coached a variety of running backs with numerous styles during his career, but Tennessee's first-year tailbacks coach placed Vols fullback Kevin Cooper in a unique category.

"Cooper is a throwback that way in that he takes the coaching, he goes out there every single day and is going to give you everything he's got," Drayton said. "He's not perfect out there -- he's going to make some mistakes -- but you know what, he's not repeating the same mistakes. Like I said, he just wants to get better. He doesn't sit there and focus in on how loud I'm coaching him. He focuses in on what I'm saying to him, and he's going to be better."

Just since fall camp opened for Tennessee in early August, Cooper has shown remarkable strides. Not that there has been any hint of satisfaction for the Chattanooga Baylor product.

"I think I have come a long way, but I feel like I've still got far to go," said the 6-foot, 240-pound sophomore. "It's just working and keep trusting in the coaches and making a conscious effort to just get better every day. I feel like me being patient with myself, knowing that I'm just trying to progress every day. That's really it. I think I have come a long way, and it's really my coaches and my teammates standing behind me the whole time."

In the Vols' opening loss at UCLA, it was Cooper's backfield mates standing -- make that running -- behind him and the veteran offensive line. Montario Hardesty, who had a pair of rushing touchdowns in that contest, heaped praise on Cooper for his performance.

Drayton similarly liked what he saw.

"That game was huge for him. He went out there and blocked one of the top linebackers in the country and handled him pretty well in my opinion," said Drayton, one of UT's four new offensive assistants. "He blocked on defensive ends and blocked in space and caught the ball out of the backfield. He has a lot of skill, and the thing behind that is that he has a lot of upside to get even better. The future is bright for Kevin Cooper. We don't have a problem giving him the football, as well. He's got great vision. He was a tailback coming out of high school. He has all the skills of a tailback. He just has the body of a fullback."

Learning how to use that frame to his advantage has been one of the key challenges for Cooper, who said the relentless pounding at fullback required the greatest adjustment. After a prep career as a tailback who dodged defenders, Cooper now has been tasked with leveling them.

" Probably just the constant hitting," Cooper said. "That's probably the biggest adjustment. Just learning how to REALLY block. Because the rest of it, the athleticism part, that was never anything to transition into. Just the whole physical aspect.

"And lining up. People take that for granted, too. That's crazy to line up and know all the plays, but overall it's pretty good for me."

As Drayton indicated, Cooper isn't merely a mobile blocking piece in the backfield. Cooper received one carry for 1 yard and also matched Gerald Jones and Arian Foster with a team-best four receptions at UCLA.

"It showed me that I could play at a high level because I didn't know what to expect at first just going out there and playing," Cooper said of the confidence he derived from the opener. "I had confidence in myself, but I didn't know what to expect. I just wanted to prove that I was a competitor, and I believe I did that."

Drayton certainly was impressed.

"He's taken some huge steps, actually. He's really turned himself into an accountable, trustworthy player," Drayton said. "He's a physical fullback. And you know what, he doesn't say a word. You can coach him as hard as you want to coach him. You can be critical of him and you can give him a lot of constructive criticism, and you know what, he just eats it, because he wants to be better. I wish everybody who plays the game was like that from a mentality standpoint because he's going to be good from that."

Cooper, who has leaned on numerous backfield mates and also received encouragement from the injured David Holbert, doesn't envision turning fullback into a glamour position.

"I just bring the whole unselfish attitude and everything," Cooper said. "I don't really care who gets what and all that, accolades or whatever, I just want us to win."

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