The dreadlocks are gone, which makes Washington running back Deontae Cooper happy because hair maintenance is no longer a time-consuming event.
Cooper has shifted to a mohawk this summer. Washington hopes it can shift him into the backfield at some point this fall.
After coming to Washington in 2010 filled with speed and aspirations, Cooper has become the ultimate what-if following three ACL tears that happened during non-contact work. Twice he’s torn the ACL in his left knee and, last fall, the ACL in his right.
Last year, Cooper thought he had merely hurt his calf. He was doing a move-react drill with then-running backs coach Joel Thomas when he first felt the pain. It didn’t go away. He saw the doctor. The bad news was upon him again.
This one stung. Cooper is perpetually upbeat, but even he had a hard time with the news of a third ACL tear just days after saying he would continue trying to play even if he tore his ACL five times.
He’s not there yet. Three is enough to deal with. Though, it hasn’t deterred him.
“There’s guys out there that hurt their knees, other body parts, and they can’t play anymore,” Cooper told the TNT Tuesday. “The doctor diagnosed me, said I needed surgery, can rehabilitate and come back and play. That’s all I need to hear to go back at it.
“Until the doctor tells me I can’t do it, I see it as an opportunity. My back is against the wall. I can’t go anywhere but up.”
Cooper has focused on knee stability during his offseason training. He’s done extra running and extra stretching. He’s run sprints up 54th street in the U-District. Veins zig-zag through his biceps and his calves bulge.
None of that will matter if his knees don’t hold.
“It’s not a physical thing for me, it’s all mental,” Cooper said. “I feel I’m better in a mental sense. The first time, I was grind, grind, grind, grind. The second time I was cautious. This time, I have nothing to lose.”
One of his prime concerns is being spot-on with his technique when he cuts, putting the emphasis on his hips as opposed to solely on his knees.
The possibility of his return makes Cooper is an intriguing wild card for Washington. His speed — as a back and punt returner — was eye-opening when he showed up in spring 2010. He was zipping through the Washington defense then and in fall camp prior to being injured. In one spring scrimmage, Cooper ran for 114 yards — including 52- and 29-yard touchdowns — on just 12 carries. He was in line to be Chris Polk’s backup.
“His overall game continues to improve, and he’s not just a one-dimensional guy,” Washington head coach Steve Sarkisian said at the time. “Sometimes some of those things can go unnoticed. It’s the overall package that he’s bringing that makes it really, really exciting for us.”
Though that work was done in a slight window, Cooper said it’s something that has given him a boost during all these setbacks.
“The fact that I had that success, raw out of high school, it just excites me to see what I can do when I am mature in this game,” Cooper said. “Now, understanding the game, it’s exciting to see what I am able to do in the future, if I am healthy.”
Cooper was taken aback when asked if he ever thought of transferring just to change things up after so many injuries. Despite being one of two people in the room, he answered, “Who, me?” when asked about transferring. He said he’s never thought about it.
So, Washington will take it day-by-day in fall camp with Cooper, letting him explain how he is feeling and what he can handle.
“How I have been feeling recently, I feel like I am going to be going,” Cooper said. “I’m feeling great.”
The Huskies could have expansive running back depth if Cooper, a redshirt junior now, and Jesse Callier (also a torn ACL last season) return to work with feature back Bishop Sankey. Ryan McDaniel, Dwayne Washington and incoming freshman Lavon Coleman, more of a power back, are also part of the group.
“I’ve got all the belief in the world in my knees,” Cooper said. “I’m just ready to start playing football again. I’m not really concerned. If I’m going to tear it, I’m going to tear it. If not, I’m not. I’m not going to save anything. Day One, I’m going to go out there and if they let me go, I’m going to go.”