Cooper ready to make his mark

Cooper (Photo: Dean Legge)

There was talk that Cooper could press Musa Smith for playing time or the starting job last season, especially since Smith's status was questionable due to an injury that shortened his 2001 season.

ATHENS, Ga. - A 5-foot-11 Georgia running back who wears No. 5 and shows a good combination of power running and speed inevitably will be compared with Garrison Hearst.

When that Georgia running back shows up for an interview after a spring practice this week wearing a San Francisco 49ers shirt, the Hearst question becomes even more obvious.

"A lot of people tell me I look like Garrison,'' Michael Cooper said this week before adding that his T-shirt selection was "just a coincidence.''

Hearst rushed for more than 3,200 yards from 1990-92 and finished third in the 1992 Heisman Trophy voting before beginning his NFL career. Cooper, a SuperPrep and Prep Star High School All-American at Screven County High School, was one of the top names in Georgia's 2002 recruiting class.

There was talk that Cooper could press Musa Smith for playing time or the starting job last season, especially since Smith's status was questionable due to an injury that shortened his 2001 season.

Instead, Smith broke through with Georgia's first 1,000-yard season for a running back since Hearst, and Cooper quickly fell behind the competition with a slow start in freshman practice. He was redshirted and says he came close to leaving Georgia.

"There was a time, a little before the midseason, when I was not feeling it, the vibe or the environment,'' Cooper said.

"When you come out of high school ranked pretty high and get publicity and then you're not playing, you think 'Maybe I made a mistake. Maybe I should transfer.' ''

Cooper credits Georgia strength and conditioning coach Dave Van Halanger and Coach Mark Richt with "keeping my mind in it.''

Cooper says that by the end of the year he realized that the redshirt season was better for his future than if he had been given no more than a few carries each game.

"I was seeing certain freshmen get in for maybe one or two plays, that's it, and I thought 'This is good for me,' '' Cooper said of the year spent on the scout team offense.

Added Cooper: "You can get no better experience than going against guys like (Johnathan) Sullivan and (Boss) Bailey day in and day out. Now I feel like I have learned the offense and I'm ready to go.''

The realization that he could benefit from the redshirt season helped lead to a turnaround for Cooper on the practice field. He gained confidence and momentum late in the season and began to jump out with his strong running in practice for the Sugar Bowl.

Cooper continued to work well in the mat drills this winter.

"Now he's ready to compete for the job,'' Richt said.

Said new running backs coach Ken Rucker after Tuesday's practice: "Cooper is a good, sound back.''

While sophomore Tony Milton is the player to beat at tailback after serving as Smith's top backup last season, Cooper ranks as a top candidate to emerge with a strong spring practice.

"Knowing the offense and being on the same page with the offensive line, I find myself being less hesitant,'' Cooper said. "Really, now I'm trying to stake my claim that I'm as good a back as Tony.''

With Milton nursing a rib injury and held out of contact, Cooper followed Ronnie Powell and others at tailback on the first-team offense Tuesday.

Cooper (5-11, 223) is a little bigger than Milton (5-10, 200) but resists being cast as a player who could move to fullback.

"No, no, no,'' Cooper said. "That was a little rumor that started when (fullbacks) J.T. Wall and Braxton (Snyder) left (as 2002 seniors). I was like 'No, that won't happen.' ''

Richt has confirmed that the only plans for Cooper are at tailback. "Cooper will have a good opportunity (at tailback),'' Richt said.

NOTES: Richt was upbeat Tuesday after the first spring session in full pads.

"That was a whole heck of a lot of fun,'' he said. "I'm really proud of how they got after it. ... It was great effort, great hitting, great enthusiasm.''

The lack of depth at offensive tackle was obvious after Dennis Roland left with a shin injury about midway through the practice. The first-team offense was left with Max Jean-Gilles and Daniel Inman as the only tackles, and coaches could not rotate players at the position. "It's sad the number of linemen we have in the program right now,'' Richt said.

Georgia lost seven seniors, including all five starters, from the 2002 team. The severity of Roland's injury was not known.

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