In a sense, when Mookie Cooper took the field for Missouri’s season opener against Central Michigan, not much seemed to have changed since the last time he played in a football game. That game, too, had been played on Faurot Field in Columbia. And like Saturday, Cooper had a sizable contingent of friends and family in the stands to watch him play.
Then again, over the course of nearly three years, almost everything had changed — including Cooper’s mindset. Prior to Saturday, the last time Cooper played in a football game had been on Dec. 1, 2018. That day, his Trinity Catholic high school team blitzed Cardinal Ritter 45-19 to win the Class 3 state championship. Cooper caught a 23-yard touchdown during the win, the culmination of a dominant junior season that saw him become one of the most sought-after offensive playmakers in the country.
Speaking to reporters Wednesday for the first time since he arrived at Missouri after transferring from Ohio State last winter, Cooper said he approached his return to the field much differently than he had that state championship game. After watching the past two seasons from the sidelines and then missing about two weeks of practice during fall camp due to a foot injury, he tempered his expectations for Saturday. His goal, he said, was simply to get re-acclimated to the speed and physicality of a live game.
“I didn’t really have too many big (expectations),” Cooper said. “I was going to just go out there and just run and plant and see what my foot felt like in live action. … It was really, I just wanted to go see what it felt like getting hit and just being out there on the field.”
As a junior at Trinity, Cooper racked up 1,153 scrimmage yards and 16 touchdowns. He added a couple more scores as a punt returner. That playmaking ability helped make him the top-rated athlete and No. 58 overall prospect in the 2020 class. He committed to Ohio State the following summer.
He wouldn’t have a chance to add to his resume as a senior. Cooper withdrew from Trinity prior to his senior season and enrolled at Pattonville, but the Missouri State High School Activities Association did not deem him eligible to play. Once he arrived in Columbus, he got caught behind a logjam of talented receivers and never saw the field as a true freshman in 2020.
As a result, Cooper decided to transfer. Missouri immediately became one of the favorites, and on Jan. 5, Cooper committed to the Tigers. He said Wednesday that the allure of playing in the SEC and the ability to play in front of family made the decision an easy one.
“I just knew, first off, that I wanted to play in the SEC once I left Ohio State,” Cooper said. “So it really came down to, family is really a big thing for me. .. Like, at the last game, I had like 20 family members come to the game. So, I mean, it came down to trusting in coach (Eli Drinkwitz) and the offense that they got and then where my family can come to be a big support.”
Cooper’s announcement immediately sparked lofty expectations from Missouri fans, who envisioned him providing welcome dynamism to a Tiger receiving corps that had struggled to produce big plays in 2020. Those flames were fanned when Cooper drew praise throughout spring practices.
But early in fall camp, Cooper limped off the practice field during a scrimmage. No exact diagnosis was ever made public, but Cooper revealed Wednesday the injury had been to his foot — less than ideal for a player who relies on his speed and elusiveness.
Cooper missed somewhere between two and three weeks of practice time. While he was able to return in time to play in Missouri’s season-opener, he said the injury limited his route-running ability, as he couldn’t cut quite as crisply as usual. As a result, he knew he wouldn’t be a downfield threat against Central Michigan. All seven of his touches came behind the line of scrimmage.
“A lot of cuts I really wasn’t too comfortable in, so that’s really what limited me running routes like that, because I wasn’t all the way comfortable and I didn’t want to go out there and let the defense know I’m about to break down on a route just because I gotta raise up on my foot, going a little awkward,” Cooper explained. “So it was really all based off of my feeling in my foot. So I was really cool with it, where I got the ball.”
The injury put Cooper in a tricky position as he took the field Saturday. Naturally, in his first football game in three years and with family in the stands to watch him perform, he wanted to live up to all the hype. But he knew he would be limited by his sore foot. He credited a meeting with Mizzou sports psychologist Scotta Morton, arranged by receivers coach Bush Hamdan, for keeping him grounded during the game.
“She helped us work on clearing our mind and not focusing too much on the outside world and expectations on Twitter or anything like that,” Cooper said. “So my biggest thing was just focusing on where I’m at, being where my feet are and just going out there and doing what I do.”
While Cooper’s final stat line of 12 yards on four receptions and three rushing attempts didn’t jump off the page, his first game in a Missouri uniform showed that Drinkwitz wants to get the ball in his hands. Cooper touched the ball on nearly half of the 15 snaps he played, a higher rate than any other Missouri skill player. He also narrowly missed a chance to show what he can do in the open field. On his first reception, Cooper had a chance to break off a big gain, but he cut the wrong way.
“The first one, everybody told me, the first one could have gone big,” Cooper said. “I just misread my block.”
Cooper believes simply getting live snaps under his belt will help refresh his ability to read blocks and make defenders miss. He also said Saturday’s game was important because it reminded him what it felt like to get hit during a football game. Both Cooper and his coach said the receiver emerged from the game physically unscathed, which was the most important objective.
“I didn’t see any rust,” Drinkwitz said of Cooper. “I think there was one jet towards the end where the ball came out and went out of bounds, but other than that I thought he did a nice job of trying to avoid tackles and secure the football. I wish we’d have got him more space, wish he’d have made a different cut on one of them, but I didn’t have any concerns. I don’t think he did either. My biggest concern was that he felt comfortable from his injury, and I think he did.””
As he regains full range of motion in his foot, Cooper believes his role will expand. He feels comfortable running the full route tree, he said, receiving the ball anywhere on the field. But as was the case during his first game for Missouri, he’s determined to stay grounded, not to let his expectations get out of whack.
It may not be right away, but eventually, he’s confident his playmaking ability will speak for itself.
“My expectation is just to go out, play my role to the best I can,” Cooper said. “Whatever Drink got lined up for me to do, that’s what I’m going to go out there and execute to the best I can to try to get this win this weekend.”
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