Devaughn Cooper made what is probably the play of the year for the Arizona Wildcats’ offense when he dove to make a 53-yard catch down the middle of the field against Southern Utah.
“I just ran down the field, seen the ball down the field, and Khalil (Tate) is my guy I knew he was going to throw it to me on that play,” Cooper said. “I was kind of just excited because I had the chance to make a play.”
That’s because a little over a year ago, it seemed like Cooper would never have such an opportunity at Arizona.
After an injury-riddled freshman season, Cooper left the program before fall camp last year for undisclosed reasons—he declined to elaborate—before opting to return just a few weeks later for a few more undisclosed reasons.
Luckily for him, then-Arizona head coach Rich Rodriguez welcomed him back.
“I appreciate everything Rich Rod has done for me,” Cooper now says. “He’s a great guy.”
There were conditions, though. Rodriguez said at the time that Cooper would not only have to earn his way up the depth chart, but on to it altogether.
“He called a couple weeks ago and we told him he had to earn his way back in, and he’s earning his way back in,” Rodriguez said last August.
UA receiver Cedric Peterson said it felt like Cooper never left because his absence was short, but Cooper admits he was behind the rest of his teammates when he returned to the field.
“But once I was practicing and getting that flow back, everything came back to normal,” he said.
Still, Cooper did not play much that season. He appeared in seven games, hauling in just two passes for 12 yards, both coming in the regular-season finale against ASU.
It wore on him.
“Nobody wants to sit, and then especially when your boys are out there balling,” he said. “It’s kinda hard, but it makes you want to work.”
Arizona returned nearly its entire receiving corps in 2018, so it was going to be another uphill battle for Cooper to crack the rotation. But the speed that made him a standout at Narbonne High School in California has made him an asset as a deep threat, with the diving catch against Southern Utah a prime example of what he is capable of.
“I’ll say I’m probably one of the top,” Cooper said when asked if he’s the fastest player on the team. “I’m not sure if I’m the fastest. We have some fast people.”
Cooper, who has six catches for 100 yards, mostly plays on the outside, subbing in for Peterson and Shawn Poindexter, but said he plans to start playing the slot, too.
He knows how important that versatility is for his future. Some of Arizona’s top slot receivers — Tony Ellison and Shun Brown — are set to graduate after this season, meaning there will be plenty of playing time up for grabs in 2019.
“I learned that there’s a lot of other people trying to get where I’m trying to get, so just put in that work,” Cooper said of what he took away from his time away from the program.
What else did he learn?
“I love football,” he said. “It takes my mind off everything going on. ... I’m just happy to be back, really.”