In four seasons at Eastern Washington, Cooper Kupp caught 428 passes for 6,464 yards and 73 touchdowns. He is now trying to prove he’ll produce in the pros, too. The Rams drafted him 69th overall in the NFL draft on Friday.
Coming out of high school five years ago, Kupp didn’t get a single scholarship offer from teams in the FBS, college football’s top level. He wound up deciding between EWU and Idaho State.
There are under-recruited stars, but there are few un-recruited stars. Kupp hailed from Yakima, Wash., a little-recruited town in a little-recruited part of Washington.
“I pursued the FBS. I tried to get ahold of everyone I could. I actually couldn’t get ahold of people. My grandpa played at U-Dub,” Kupp told SB Nation, referring to the University of Washington Huskies. “We had a lot of connections there. We couldn’t even get a reply back from them. We couldn’t get a letter back or an email back that simply said, ‘No, we’re not interested.’ We couldn’t get anything from them, so, you know, it was frustrating.”
Kupp turned out to be top-division quality.
He played four games against teams from the Power 5 Pac-12, in which he had 40 catches for 716 yards (an 18-yard average) and 11 touchdowns.
Working against a 2014 Washington secondary with multiple future NFL picks, he had eight grabs for 145 yards and three scores.
He dunked on nearly every team he played.
Two of Kupp’s greatest strengths: adjustment and hands.
At the NFL Combine, he showed excellent agility in the three-cone and shuttle drills and good size, at 6’2, 204, with above-average hand size.
His head coach at EWU, current Cal offensive coordinator Beau Baldwin, runs an air raid offense. That means tons of passing and lots of option routes for receivers. Kupp spent four years moving all around EWU’s formations, running routes that change after the snap with the purpose of leading receivers to green grass. (Or red turf, in games played at EWU.)
We don’t use the term “air raid” much for NFL offenses, but pro teams have moved close to the system. The Patriots have enjoyed great success with the help of ex-air raid receivers who time up routes and get open at exactly the right times.
“That’s gonna be big at the next level,” Kupp said, “as much as you are called to be able to find zones and understand what the defense is doing. There’s so many adjustments off of every route that, if you're able to understand the defense, then you can play that much faster, because you don’t even know pre-snap, sometimes, exactly what you’re gonna need to do.”
Kupp made circus catches at EWU.
One came in his sophomore season against Idaho State. That reception, a connection with eventual Oregon QB Vernon Adams, showed off both Kupp’s hands and his knack for altering his routes.
“We had made some adjustments on a few different plays,” he said. “They kept going cover 1, and we were just missing on a few inside fade balls. We had a little corner route called from the slot, and we [had three receivers to one side], and they were going middle field-open. And so we adjusted it to a seam route, and going up the middle, it was basically running the seam off a Mike backer.”
He says every part of his game is perpetually “under construction.”
Kupp comes from a football family. His father, Craig, played in the NFL in the 1990s. His grandfather, Jake, is a New Orleans Saints team Hall of Famer from the 1960s. He’s going through a drastically different draft process than, say, his grandfather did.
“He got drafted, and I think he got called,” Kupp said. “Didn’t even know that he was, like, in the draft. It’s a whole different animal.”
Kupp prides himself as a separation-creator and focuses on his hands and blocking ability. An area under extra construction might be “being skinny at the line of scrimmage” and not getting jammed off his routes. Evaluators have focused on that with him, he said.
The big question to answer: quality of competition.
There’s a lot of good FCS football, and EWU’s one of its best programs. Kupp was its best receiver for four years. There are receivers in the league now (Pierre Garcon, Tyrell Williams, and more) and in the past (some guy named Jerry Rice) who didn’t play top-division ball.
But it wasn’t a draft plus.
“People wanna know about it,” Kupp said. “They wanna know what I think about it. I don’t know if it really matters what I think about it. But I think regardless of what I was able to do, regardless of whatever you did, regardless of whatever I was able to produce, even against FBS teams, I don’t think it would’ve changed a whole lot, in terms of people are always gonna have that question of, ‘Well, you played in the FCS.’”
Kupp sounds like he’s roaring to get going.
“What I’m excited about is getting to a team, knowing where I’m gonna be at, knowing the players and coaches I’m gonna be around, and being able to go out and be the best player I can be and produce for a city and for a team,” Kupp said before his draft night. “I believe, regardless, I can be a Hall of Fame player, and that’s what I’m excited to be. That’s not gonna change just because I played at a small school.”