Beau Baldwin insisted his star receiver spend time with a specific recruit coming to campus. While Nick Edwards wouldn’t be hosting the recruit, Baldwin, then-head coach at Eastern Washington University, wanted to make sure the Eagles made a good impression.
Edwards could provide it. Cooper Kupp, the recruit, visited Cheney, Washington, that weekend. He and Edwards hung out during the day and at night, working out together in the football facility instead of going partying.
The pitch worked -- Kupp committed to Eastern Washington. Long before he became the NFL’s leading receiver last season and Edwards was an Atlanta Falcons offensive assistant coach trying to work his way up in professional football, they were teammates and then player and coach at Eastern Washington.
When you see Kupp dominating on Sundays for the Los Angeles Rams, who face Edwards’ Falcons on Sunday, understand part of what made Kupp the player he is comes from the man he once competed against at everything from playing basketball to catching tennis balls -- Edwards.
Over the better part of five years, Edwards and Kupp became good friends as they tried to achieve sustainable football careers. When Edwards became Kupp’s coach, he envisioned how he wanted to impart his knowledge to his receivers. It stuck out.
“He wanted to come in and see things his way in how he saw the game, which he sees the game better than just about any coach I’ve ever had,” Kupp said. “And so I trusted that.”
It’s a trust that began when Kupp was redshirting and Edwards was in the final year of a career that saw him post 215 receptions for 2,634 yards and 33 touchdowns. Edwards, after brief offseason playing stints with the Arizona Cardinals and Seattle Seahawks, went into coaching.
He spent a year on Eastern’s strength and conditioning staff and then became the team’s wide receivers coach in 2014, just after Kupp had his first of four All-American seasons.
PROFESSIONAL FOOTBALL HAS BEEN in the Kupp family for generations. Cooper's father, Craig, stuck in the league as a quarterback for a few years, though he played in only one game. His grandfather, Jake, spent a year as an offensive guard with the Falcons as part of a 12-year career mostly with the New Orleans Saints. But Edwards was a guy who spoke Cooper Kupp's language, a contemporary who not only played the same position and played it well, but played it in a way that Kupp envisioned.
Edwards helped Kupp decipher the game. He turned him into a receiver whose preparation helped him grasp not just what he should do but what the defense might do to counter it.
“That was his game. That was his M.O.,” Kupp said. “He challenged me to continue to grow in that way. There wasn’t going to be a letdown, that kind of thing. Being able to see triangles, understand coverage, anticipate that stuff.”
The “triangles” Kupp references are the safety, cornerback and linebacker on his side of the field. Edwards taught Kupp to read what those three told him pre-snap through their alignment and body language.
To Edwards, pre-snap reads were crucial because it could alter everything once the play started. Know the coverage, you win the route and the play. Every coach has their methods. Edwards’ plan mixed well with Kupp’s desire to ask questions and learn.
“It’s highly calculated what you’re going to get post-snap by film review,” Edwards said. “Understanding what you’re getting by film review and then reading the coverages. It’s not really anticipating. It’s a highly, highly educated guess.”
Both Kupp and Edwards preferred working late at night -- they had another similar connection in that both got married while still in college -- and Kupp would come into the Eastern Washington facility, see Edwards still there, and they’d start talking ball and life.
In some ways, Edwards had always mentored Kupp. When Kupp redshirted while Edwards played, Kupp struggled timing a six-step out route, so Edwards stayed after practice and worked with Kupp until he had a better grasp of it.
“His compulsiveness and his competitiveness to be able to get something,” Edwards said. “Like he wasn’t going to be like, ‘OK, I can’t get it. I’m going to work on it tomorrow.’ Like, he wanted to master it.”
WHEN EDWARDS STARTED coaching, he stressed route detail. He noticed “a small little waggle,” a tiny movement of the hips, at the top of Kupp’s routes.
They drilled it over and over to make every route -- short, intermediate, deep -- look the same in the first few yards off the line. This makes it much harder to read Kupp’s intentions. Fundamentals might sound cliché. To Edwards and Kupp they were everything.
“It’s just intrinsically at this point now where my feet and my hands are matched up together,” Kupp said. “You’re doing things without thinking about it, and I have to think that all that stuff comes from the drills and the things that Nick had taught us.”
There’s a lot of what Kupp learned then in his game now. Falcons coach Arthur Smith described how Kupp finds holes in zones as a strength in his game. Smith said Kupp has a certain feel, particularly on routes where he has the option of where to go.
“When you get players like that -- guys that historically can work in the slot and take advantage of anything -- that’s a symbol of they are going to be where you’re not. He knows enough and is very smart, that’s what you can tell about instinct.”
WHILE EDWARDS TAUGHT Kupp, he was also training himself as a coach. As a sophomore, Kupp broke Edwards’ single-season reception record (Edwards had 95 in 2011) with 104. He’d break it again as a junior (114 catches) and a senior (117 catches).
It was clear Kupp was going to be a pro, and the mentor-pupil relationship morphed into a partnership. The last year-plus of their time together turned into a constant dialogue as a way of coaching instead of the typical instructor-student.
“I think he grew into his coaching, being more comfortable with that and understanding that I’m always going to have so much respect for him as a coach and as a person,” Kupp said. “But being able to have something where we were able to do it together and be collaborative, at the end of the day, was the best way to do it.”
Baldwin, who paired them up years earlier, could see the influence. The maturity Baldwin saw in Kupp was the same he saw in Edwards, who he would eventually take with him to Cal when he became the offensive coordinator and then Cal Poly before Edwards left this past offseason to take the job with the Falcons. In Atlanta, Edwards is an offensive assistant, primarily working with quarterbacks Marcus Mariota and Desmond Ridder.
Working with Kupp so early helped Edwards. Their approaches were the same and their partnership real.
“It was so give and take and so back and forth and such mutual respect, and they were both so good at being able to keep their ears open,” Baldwin said. “They really listened to one another and respected one another so because of that they both became stronger being around each other.”
When Edwards heard how Kupp described him and his influence on how he sees the game, Edwards paused. He said Kupp was a nice person. Then it hit him.
“It’s rewarding as a coach when you hear those things from your players,” Edwards said. “It’s also rewarding where you’re teaching the game in the right way and it does work.”