SEATTLE -- If all had gone to plan, Deontae Cooper would’ve been getting ready for the NFL draft right now.
Instead, the redshirt junior running back -- who has suffered three season-ending knee injuries in three separate seasons at Washington -- is going through just the second spring season of his college career.
He knows the ins and outs of the Washington rehabilitation staff better than nearly anyone. That is, after all, where he spent his last three spring seasons -- rehabbing knee injuries.
Cooper entered this spring as one of the oldest players on the team and one of the least experienced when it comes to the type of practices and routines the team goes through during this period.
“It is kind of weird,” Cooper said. “But the way I look at it is the past is behind me and it’s good that I have a fresh start with a fresh new staff.”
The last spring season Cooper went through was with then-Washington coach Steve Sarkisian. It was 2010 and the early enrollee, who should’ve still been in high school, going to math classes and prom, impressed the coaching staff. Now, four years later, he’s doing the same under Chris Petersen.
With the way that Cooper has performed this spring, his past ACL injuries haven’t even crossed Petersen’s mind as he has watched him run and cut.
“Oh no, I don’t even think about it,” Petersen said.
Last season, Bishop Sankey (20 TDs, 327 carries, 1,870 yards) took the majority of the carries for the Huskies. Cooper, who had actually enrolled more than a year before Sankey, was listed as a redshirt freshman on that roster, despite the fact that he was taking his senior classes.
But, it was his first time in uniform at Washington. Cooper appeared in seven games, accounting for three touchdowns and 270 yards on just 43 attempts. And in this offseason -- the first true collegiate offseason of his career -- Cooper got the good news that the NCAA would be granting him two extra seasons of eligibility, giving him three more seasons with the University of Washington.
With that kind of a relief and thoughts of “what if” out of his head, he let himself really look into the future and focus on what he can accomplish at Washington.
At Boise State, Petersen ran a very balanced offense. Of the 1,029 plays the Broncos ran last season, 563 were run plays, while 466 were pass attempts. On average, Boise State accounted for more passing yardage than rushing yardage, but Boise State running back Jay Ajayi accounted for 109 rushing yards per game and Petersen is certainly going to look for a back to carry the load in a similar way at Washington.
And with Sankey gone, Cooper is in the thick of it, battling sophomore Dwayne Washington, among others, to be the featured running back.
Cooper certainly has a maturity advantage that comes with being a senior, but he also has a tenacity from watching so many spring practices from the sideline as well as a gratitude for the opportunity to even put a jersey on. He knows too well what it feels like to not have one.
Mostly, there might be no one on the roster who’s more excited for the daunting and exhausting grind of the offseason and spring practices than Cooper.
“I’ve been looking forward to this -- just a healthy offseason,” Cooper said. “No hiccups, no setbacks. I just wanted a clean slate, just a nice smooth offseason and I’m finally getting it.”
And with that healthy offseason, he has a healthy relationship with a new staff that doesn’t necessarily look at him as “the comeback kid” or “the injured one.” Cooper is just another running back in the group, even if he has a few more scars on his knees.
Cooper said that Petersen has never once brought up the injuries and that’s exactly what Cooper wanted.
“We knew he had some knee injuries, but that’s in the past,” Petersen said. “He’s healthy so we don’t even talk about it.”
“It feels good just to be [seen as]: ‘Deontae, he’s ready to go. I don’t know about what he did in the past or what happened to him in the past,’ ” Cooper added. “That’s good for anybody. A fresh slate like that, I can’t complain.”
This spring, most of his 2010 class is graduating, though there are a few redshirts staying behind with him. And if he fulfills each extra season of eligibility granted to him, he’ll end up graduating with the class that came in this past fall.
So while it might take him seven full years to get four seasons of football in, he isn’t complaining about every extra step -- even when it was on a wobbly knee.
“As far as playing, those three years I sat out, those are three lost years so you can’t get that back,” Cooper said. “But just being much more mature, understanding the game, watching guys leave here it has helped me.”