The Most Underrated Wide Receiver in College Football
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because late bloomers are never done.
OZY profiled Easten Washington University’s star 6-foot-2 wide receiver, Cooper Kupp, back in 2016. On Friday, he was selected in the third round of the NFL Draft by the Rams. Hollywood-bound, this 69th pick in the draft may turn out to be a productive starter in the NFL. After all, he did have 428 catches, 6,464 receiving yards and 73 TDs at EWU.
Cooper Kupp jets up the sideline, stutter-steps to juke the cornerback and then slants toward the middle of the field. The pass is behind him — heading straight toward a defender’s chest, in fact. But no matter: Kupp leaps into the air, spins backward and snags the ball with his left hand. Kupp palms the ball’s tip precariously until he cradles it into his chest and tumbles to the ground. It’s just one of the miracles Kupp’s produced on his way to smashing all-time receiving records in Division I football for career yards, receptions and touchdowns.
But few fans can say they have seen that play, or any of Kupp’s more miraculous plays. Kupp’s games don’t see the light of national broadcast because he plays in college football’s overlooked flyover country: the FCS. There, he’s a huge fish in a small pond. Standing at 6-foot-2 and 215 pounds, 23-year-old Kupp is pegged as a second or third rounder in the NFL draft that starts on April 27. Kupp’s second-seeded Eastern Washington starts in the FCS playoffs this Saturday in a playoff run that could culminate in a showdown at the FCS championship game on January 7. Some compare Kupp to the Arizona Cardinals’ Larry Fitzgerald (great hands and unrivaled professionalism). To others, Kupp is the Seattle Seahawks Hall of Famer Steve Largent because he runs crisp routes and never drops balls. His wide receivers coach at EWU, Nick Edwards, makes perhaps the most audacious of comparisons: San Francisco 49ers Hall of Famer Jerry Rice, aka the G.O.A.T. — and also a product of an overlooked flyover school. “Just the way he works, the way he sets guys up,” says Edwards. “Jerry wasn’t a blazer, and Cooper’s not a blazer. He’s just going to do everything right.”
NFL stars hailing from the FCS — the Football Championship Subdivision, one step below (and separated from) the top college football division — are sprinkled throughout league history. For every Jerry Rice, who was selected in the first round out of FCS school Mississippi Valley State, there are future stars from FCS schools who are overlooked, underrated bargains on draft day. “It’s pretty awesome to study the greatest of all time, Jerry Rice, and remember he came out of Mississippi Valley State, a small school. I just believe in my ability and that God has plan for me,” Kupp says. Other FCS success stories include Dallas Cowboys Pro Bowl quarterback Tony Romo, who went undrafted out of Eastern Illinois, and the Arizona Cardinals’ David Johnson, who was picked in the third round out of Northern Iowa. But finding these diamonds in the rough takes great scouting and lucky timing. There are 125 FCS schools and of the 253 players selected in the 2016 draft, only 20 of them — less than 10 percent — came from those 125 schools. In comparison, Ohio State alone saw 12 of its players picked in 2016.
So how does a player like Kupp go from being completely overlooked by Division I schools to being mentioned in the same breath as football legends? The answer’s actually pretty simple: The Kupp family gets its growth spurts late.
Unless college recruiters looked deep into his gene pool, they would have had no idea Kupp would go from a 5-foot-6, bony 145 pounds early in high school to today’s sturdy frame. His grandfather, Jake Kupp, an NFL offensive lineman for a decade and his father, Craig Kupp, a drafted quarterback, were the same way. His family knew the struggles of being the smallest kid on the football field or the basketball court could someday turn into his greatest gift. “Those tough times eventually came to help him,” Cooper’s grandfather told OZY.
The tough times started in junior high. Suddenly, boys who’d entered adolescence were head and shoulders above young Cooper. One weekend, his father drove him to a basketball tournament at a Yakima middle school. It was one of the few times Cooper, famous for his ability to focus — he’d get a model plane kit on Christmas morning, and by that evening the plane was assembled and painted — didn’t seem to care. Other boys were already sprouting hair on their lips, and Cooper looked defeated and discouraged, a little kid next to blossoming young men.
On the 25-minute drive home, his father launched into a tough-love soliloquy. “I didn’t pull any punches,” Craig Kupp told OZY. “It was this realization that he’s undersized and he’ll have to deal with that, and he’ll just have to work really hard. I told him, ‘You’ve got good genes. Your body will be there someday. And if you’ve mastered the fundamentals, you’ll leapfrog everybody.’” His dad allowed him two more games to quit being a wallflower or he would pull Cooper off the team. The very next game, Cooper’s dad saw the difference: It was night and day. Instead of passively trying to stay out of the way of other players, Cooper was competing on both ends of the court, showing the hustle and the winning, team-first mind-set that marks his attitude today. Even now, Kupp credits that sixth-grade conversation with his father for his David-over-Goliath mentality that has NFL scouts pegging him as a legitimate NFL wide receiver and one of the first FCS players to be taken in the 2017 draft.
Edwards noticed Kupp’s grittiness on his recruiting visit. Edwards was a college senior that season, and while many recruits take their visits as a chance to party with college kids, Kupp stayed with him on the visit. At Edwards’ house, they peaceably watched a Kevin Hart stand-up show on DVD. Then Edwards told Kupp about the JUGS football passing machine at the football facility. Kupp’s eyes lit up. Most high school students would be impressed by a frat party; Kupp was impressed that Edwards knew the janitor, and that the janitor would let them into the facility at 10 o’clock on a Saturday night. The two competed to catch the most balls. “Old-school coaches like to say, ‘Find me a guy that will never drop the ball.’” Edwards says and Kupp was that guy.
Kupp is the one few see coming — and he’s used that to his advantage every time. “The best thing a receiver can do is believe he’s never a finished product,” Kupp says.