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Cooper Kupp has replicated his dominance at FCS level against NFL competition

One bad game in high school turned Kupp into one of the most consistent and dominant receivers in history

Los Angeles Rams v Minnesota Vikings Photo by David Berding/Getty Images

Having encountered thousands of college player bios over the years, I can confidently say that Cooper Kupp’s page at Eastern Washington is the one that comes closest to Stephen King’s It in terms of word count. Equally chilling are the stats.

Kupp finished his career at Eastern Washington with unprecedented totals: 428 catches for 6,464 yards and 73 touchdowns, numbers that wouldn’t be possible without either playing at a high level for all four seasons he was eligible OR forging your enrollment as “twins” and pretending you’re two players... Cooper and “Connor” Kupp... and then getting twice the amount of stats. Somehow Cooper Kupp did this all by himself. No fake twins.

From his 1,691 yards and 21 touchdowns as a freshman to 1,700 yards and 17 touchdowns as a senior, Kupp’s college career closely resembles the one he’s had in the pros since joining the Los Angeles Rams five years ago: from the day he shows up, Kupp has been ready to contribute at a high level. He played four years at the FCS level, he was named a first-team All-American four times.

Put in a quarter, win all-american... put in a quarter, win all-american... put in a quarter, win all-american...

Though Kupp did this at Eastern Washington, he was still the first player to ever be named first-team All-American four times at the FCS level, and it hasn’t happened to anyone at the “Division-I” level since 1900. That’s when Yale’s Gordon Brown and Penn’s T. Truxtun Hare became the third and fourth players to ever accomplish the feat and likely will be until the end of our lives.

If only Yale hadn’t told Cooper Kupp that they didn’t want him to play football for them, they might have finally had a successor to Frank Hinkey (another four-time All-American at Yale in the 19th century) and Brown.

Kupp’s remarkable consistency is an attribute that is rarely seen by any NFL players, let alone the ones drafted by Les Snead over the past decade. The only one who came as close to proving ready to face professional athletes from the jump is Aaron Donald. We know that Donald is a perennial Defensive Player of the Year candidate and a future Hall of Famer. Has Kupp’s dominant 2021 season finally tipped the scales towards people viewing him in a similar light?

Midway down his own personal Homer’s Odyssey at the Golden Eagles’ website, Kupp’s college coach Beau Baldwin gives his opinion on what made the barely-recruited wide receiver so special at Eastern:

His biggest attribute is his consistency, and that he continues to find ways to produce when everybody’s eyes are on him. But he’ll be the first to tell you it’s easy to be get open and find success when he’s playing around a lot of other great players. Whenever that moment is there, he makes a play. That’s why he has such huge numbers over the years – he doesn’t miss an opportunity. And the reason he doesn’t miss those opportunities is that he prepares to such a level that when an opportunity presents itself, he gets it done time after time after time. Plus, he has the guts and the toughness not to be worried about any moment – he just goes out and gets it done.”

In an interview with ESPN in 2017, Baldwin added that Kupp had the best work ethic of any player he had come across over 22 years of coaching football in Washington state.

“He didn’t waste a minute, ever,” Baldwin said. “I know a lot of people say it, but he truly wasn’t going to let anyone outwork him.”

Baldwin’s quote about Kupp continuing to produce “when everybody’s eyes are on him” and the “huge numbers” he’s capable of sound like something pulled from an article within the last two months. Instead, this is how Kupp was viewed as a dominant player against the likes of Montana and North Dakota State. Even if Kupp was the best player in FCS history, it would still require the qualifier of “FCS” and most fans do not even know what FCS stands for.

(It stands for: “Football is Cooper’s Sport”)

How Cooper Kupp landed in the Big Sky instead of the Big Ten or the SEC is a story that’s been told by now—the simplest way to put it for me is that despite millions spent on college recruiting, they continue to have major gaps in the process—but with Kupp’s case one life lesson rings more true than the others: Sometimes the best gift is no gifts.

As a sophomore at Davis High School, Cooper Kupp once dropped two touchdown passes in a nine-point loss. He said this moment motivated him to work harder on catching the football than ever before, to the point of his dad’s arm going numb. Given that Kupp is the best receiver in the NFL today, I imagine the week after that game vs. Wenatchee will make for the montage to end all montages when the movie “All-American Underdog: The Cooper Kupp Story” is released in December, 2028.

Alternate titles/movies:

  • Air Kuppies: Golden Receiver
  • Cooper starring Bruce Willis and Joseph Gordon-Levitt
  • Coop Beverly Hills
  • Pixar’s Kupp
  • “10” a remake of the Bo Derek movie about a perfect 10 and also he wears the number 10, etc.

Every football player has moments when they suck. This is perhaps less true of guys like Donald and Kupp, but 99.9 percent of would-be professional athletes find a moment to quit. Countless would drop two touchdown passes and then do any number of things:

  • Hope that it doesn’t happen again
  • Concentrate on studying so you can get a real job
  • Concentrate on dating
  • Work a “little bit” harder next time
  • Give up—you’re just some kid in Yakima, Washington, it’s not like you’re going to the league anyway

Even if Kupp does come from an NFL family, so do tens of thousands of other people at this point. Many of them with parents who were more accomplished in football than his father Craig Kupp. But Cooper Kupp so badly wanted to be a good receiver that he focused with an intensity that may not have been possible... if he had caught those two touchdown passes.

Kupp broke out for 811 yards as a junior at Davis, then caught 60 passes for 1,059 yards and 18 touchdowns as a senior, setting a school record with 22 total touchdowns. He was the best player on the state champions but this did not get him much local, or any national attention coming out of school in 2012. Not even his grandfather Jake, an NFL player for 12 seasons, could get his alma mater Washington to take a longer look at his grandson Cooper.

For whatever reason, Kupp was not gifted with the same straight line speed as many of his recruiting counterparts and so he had to work that much harder on every other attribute afforded to him as a receiver.

If Cooper Kupp ran a 4.43 instead of a 4.62, would he have spent as much time in the film room? Would he have worked so hard on everything else that goes into being a receiver, from route running, to his 3-cone and shuttle times (both much more in line with numbers that get players drafted into the NFL), to studying opponents and finding their weaknesses?

There were no Division-I offers and following a rejection by the Yale football team, Kupp committed to Eastern Washington in 2012.

In 2013, Kupp was named FCS Freshman of the Year, having set freshman records for catches, yards, and touchdowns. He was the first freshman wide receiver on the first-team All-American list since Randy Moss and he notably won the Jerry Rice award.

He only got better from there.

As a sophomore, Cooper Kupp played in two fewer games but caught 11 more passes.

Then as a junior, Kupp caught 114 passes — 10 more than the previous season — and again played in two fewer games than the year before. He averaged 149 receiving yards per game as a junior and scored 19 touchdowns, winning the Walter Payton Award as the top player in FCS.

Kupp’s senior season saw him set FCS career records for catches (428), yards (6,464), and receiving touchdowns (73).

Much like how teammate Andrew Whitworth has been the hallmark measure of reliability and consistency at a high level in both college and the pros, Cooper Kupp has set a standard for being the preeminent example among wide receivers for a strong work ethic and consistency.

Following the 2017 NFL Draft, Sean McVay noted that if he couldn’t get the chance to draft Kupp, he’d at least be the first person to hire him as a wide receivers coach as soon as he’s available:

“You felt like you were almost talking to a receiver coach.” When Kupp left the room, McVay turned to his actual receivers coach, Eric Yarber, and told him, “You’re lucky we just hired you.”

“You watch him play, you see he’s got those pre-snap plans that, a lot of times, you don’t see,” McVay said of Kupp. “He is one of the more polished college receivers that I’ve evaluated coming out in a while.”

Kupp used that polish to become LA’s best wide receiver much earlier than even the most optimistic Kupp-believer would have imagined.

After going behind 68 other players in the draft, six of those prospects being receivers, Kupp was taken by the LA Rams in round three and soon thought to be a third option behind Robert Woods and Sammy Watkins. Instead of that plan, Kupp led the Rams with 94 targets, 62 catches, and 869 yards as a rookie.

It was something that Beau Baldwin could have told you (or the teams that passed up on Kupp) well before 2017.

I don’t have a single doubt in my mind that he will have an amazing impact in an NFL offense,” Baldwin said. “I’ve never seen him get defended by anyone. I’ve never seen him struggle. I mean, it’s been consistent, no matter who we played, no matter who it’s against. And he’s got a drive and a mindset that he’s not going to allow himself to not have success.”

I mean, some quotes are good, others deserve to be printed on helmets:

“I’ve never seen Cooper Kupp get defended by anyone.”

It’s the type of you talk you hear coaches handfeed newspapers about their players at every given chance, but typically those players did not also set career records for catches, yards, and touchdowns. High school coach Jay Dumas would tell you the same, noting to the LA Times in 2019 that Kupp has always had a knack for making plays after the catch:

“It’s what we expect from him,” said Jay Dumas, who coached Kupp at Davis High and at Eastern Washington. “When you look back at his tapes from high school and college, that’s the type of play that he made special, the catch and the run after the catch. It’s stuff he’s been doing his whole life.”

In his second NFL season, with Watkins replaced by Brandin Cooks, Kupp got better by every measure: more yards per game, catches per game, more yards per target, a higher catch rate, more touchdowns. The only problem was that Kupp missed eight games, but that has not been an issue for him before or since.

Cooper Kupp all-time

Year Team Catches Yards Touchdowns Yards per game
Year Team Catches Yards Touchdowns Yards per game
2010 Davis 31 811 7 81.1
2011 Davis 60 1,059 18 105.9
2012 REDSHIRT n/a n/a n/a n/a
2013 EWU 93 1,691 21 112.7
2014 EWU 104 1,431 16 110
2015 EWU 114 1,642 19 149.2
2016 EWU 117 1,700 17 130.7
2017 Rams 62 869 5 58
2018 Rams 40 566 6 70.8
2019 Rams 94 1,161 10 72.6
2020 Rams 92 974 3 65
2021 Rams 132 1,734 14 115.6

And in spite of LA’s offensive struggles over the last two seasons, Cooper Kupp averaged 93 catches, 1,067 yards, and scored 13 touchdowns from 2019-2020. I think we can say with good certainty that those numbers are more of a product of Kupp doing what coaches asked of him given the capabilities of the offense than they are an indication of what he is capable of in an offense designed to highlight one simple fact: Cooper Kupp is the best player on the field.

He might even be the best player in football right now.

In the mold of the 2021 Los Angeles Rams, Kupp has had the best opportunity of his NFL career to mirror what he meant as a football player to Beau Baldwin and Eastern Washington during his college career.

Against the best athletes and players on defense in the world, with all of the attention directly on him each week by NFL defensive coordinators, Kupp has managed to replicate the same success he had in the FCS in the pros, something that not even Division-I football thought was possible.

Through 15 games, Cooper Kupp has 132 catches for 1,734 yards and 14 touchdowns. He has set the record for most 90-yard games in a season already and the 16th game hasn’t even happened yet. He plays for the same franchise that once employed Isaac Bruce and Torry Holt and Henry Ellard and Elroy Hirsch but is still likely to set Rams records in every major receiving category this season and not in a way that feels “cheap because of the era.”

Kupp is dominant even when compared right smack into the middle of 2021 passing offenses. Nobody else is even close to him.

It appears that since the time he had one bad game during his first year on the varsity team, Cooper Kupp’s determination to never fail again reached a level that’s typically only seen in movies... Planned trilogies, based on material written for an Eastern Washington player bio... an epic saga that’s been overlooked for too long.