Cooper battles flu, posts career highs
GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Riley Cooper caught a career-high five passes for 105 yards in Florida's opener. He vomited a record number of times, too.
Nonetheless, his performance made the top-ranked Gators feel much better about their revamped receiving corps.
"Thank God he came back," coach Urban Meyer said Sunday, about 12 hours after his team beat Charleston Southern 62-3. "We're struggling right now if we don't have Coop."
Cooper was Tim Tebow's favorite target Saturday night, and maybe for good reason. Not only do they share an off-campus apartment, but Cooper caught everything thrown his way. He even had one reception just seconds after throwing up on the field.
Cooper had been sick for several days leading up to the game, and his body repeatedly rejected the notion of drinking lots of fluids on a warm and humid evening and then running full speed down the field.
So there he was heaving one second, then hauling in passes the next.
"That's different," Cooper said. "I don't know too many guys that do that."
There's little doubt the Gators believe Cooper is special. Meyer raves about his speed, tenacity and blocking ability. And even though the 6-foot-3 senior from Clearwater caught just 18 passes for 261 yards and three touchdowns last year, Florida expected more from him this fall with the departure of leading receivers Percy Harvin and Louis Murphy.
"I knew it was my senior year and we were kind of limited at depth at wide receiver, so I knew that my role was going to be more expanded," Cooper said.
That's assuming he decided to come back.
The Texas Rangers selected Cooper in the 25th round of June's amateur draft. Although he struggled with Florida's baseball team -- he hit .247 with two home runs, eight RBIs and three stolen bases in 30 games this spring, and struck out 41 times in 89 at-bats -- the Rangers offered him a reported $250,000 contract because of his speed and potential.
Cooper signed with the Rangers, but negotiated a deal that would allow him to play one more season in Gainesville before heading to the minor leagues.
No one was happier than Meyer.
"He's playing as good as he's ever played," Meyer said. "I know it's just one game, but the way he's been practicing, you could tell he was going to come out and have a breakout game."
His blocks may have been even better than his catches.
Cooper tossed defenders around, keying big runs for Jeff Demps and Chris Rainey. He made one block without a helmet and helped create the seam that sprung Brandon James for an 85-yard kickoff return for a touchdown.
"He might be one of the best [blocking receivers] we've ever had," Meyer said. "Our guys block before they catch balls in practice, but Riley Cooper takes it to the next level 'cause he's such a tough guy and competitive guy.
"Riley Cooper's turned into a great football player. He really has. He catches the ball well and he does other things well, but for the football coach who grades him, he's a great player."
Cooper might not be a great salesman, though. He admits he talked to Tebow several times last season about getting him the ball. Tebow says the conversations were mostly sarcastic, with Cooper saying things like, "Throw me the ball or I'm going to move out."
Either way, it didn't work.
Tebow doesn't have too many other options now. James and Deonte Thompson dropped would-be touchdown passes against the Buccaneers. Senior Carl Moore is out indefinitely with a back injury. Highly touted freshman Andre Debose is considering hamstring surgery that could end his season. And backups Omarius Hines, Justin Williams, T.J. Lawrence and Frankie Hammond Jr., are progressing slowly.
Cooper, meanwhile, could be in for more record performances.
"He's a freak," Tebow said. "He's 6-3 and that fast. Most people underestimate how fast he really is."
Copyright 2009 by The Associated Press
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