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Cowboys star Amari Cooper nearly missed opportunity to shine on big stage

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Amari Cooper’s recruitment could have gone very differently, which would have altered his path to Cowboys stardom.

NFL: Dallas Cowboys at New York Giants Robert Deutsch-USA TODAY Sports

The COVID-19 pandemic has altered several things of our daily lives: how we interact with people in public, ordering takeout rather than sitting in restaurants, and it has even impacted the sports world in a major way.

While we see the MLB and NBA slowly begin to restart their seasons, it is still a bit up in the air whether or not we will see football this fall. The preseason games have been canceled, the roster size has seen some changes, and players have voiced concerns over playing without reasonable safety plans communicated.

The NFL is probably much more likely to see a season than college football due to it being a professional league, the amount of teams in the league, et cetera, and we are seeing how the pandemic has complicated matters for college coaching staffs — especially in the evaluation process. The recruiting dead period was extended through at least August and prospect camps were canceled this summer.

Prospect camps are similar to the NFL Combine we see in Indianapolis every March. Such a setting allows coaches to get an up-close view on the players that they are recruiting while gathering confirmed times and measurements that can go a long way in how the staff views different prospects.

What does this have to do with the Cowboys? Well, one of their star players would have missed out on an opportunity to showcase his talents in the best conference in all of college football, the SEC, had it not been for summer prospect camps.

The Athletic’s Andy Staples wrote a piece on how the current pandemic will cause the 2021 and 2022 recruiting classes to “be the worst evaluated in years” because of the lack of prospect camps around the country — which has been a vital source for scouting for programs all over the nation. In the article, Staples points to the case of Amari Cooper.

The talented Cooper, from Miami, suffered a hip injury that severely limited his junior season at Miami Northwestern, meaning the South Florida receiver did not have much film to send out to college coaches.

Through the spring of 2011, Amari Cooper heard the same question repeatedly. “Where is your film?” Cooper had grown up playing against great competition in South Florida. He knew he was one of the best receivers in the high school class of 2012. But at the time, he had no way to show it.

As recruiting classes began to fill up ahead of Cooper’s senior season, there were some concerns on where he was going to play on the next level — he did not have the film to catch the eye from a major program because of the injury and was likely going to settle playing on the Group of 5 level if he could not showcase his abilities in front of coaches.

A left hip injury had limited Cooper during the 2010 season at Miami Northwestern High. That would have been a great year to be healthy, because senior Teddy Bridgewater was the school’s quarterback. But Cooper was dinged up and behind Louisville-bound Eli Rogers and Florida International-bound Clinton Taylor in the receiver pecking order. So when college coaches saw Cooper in during the spring 2011 evaluation period, they wondered where the game production was to match the smooth acceleration and cutting ability they saw on the practice field.

Fortunately for Cooper, he had more chances to showcase his talent. He had joined the South Florida Express 7-on-7 team that spring and hit the recruiting radar after dominating his first tournament. That April and May, college coaches could watch him practice. That summer, Cooper hit the road with some of his Northwestern teammates. Luther Campbell — yes, the former 2 Live Crew frontman — was Northwestern’s defensive coordinator in 2011 and accompanied the players to camps at Florida State and Alabama. Campbell watched as Cooper abused DBs who had interest from both schools.

Cooper benefited from former Vikings star receiver Cris Carter, who told Nick Saban and the Alabama Crimson Tide coaches about the Miami product. As a result, the current Dallas Cowboys Pro Bowl wideout saw his recruitment blow up with offers coming in from major programs.

Hall of Fame receiver Cris Carter, whose son Duron was on the Alabama roster at the time, was the one who waved Alabama coaches over to watch Cooper at the camp in Tuscaloosa. The gist of Carter’s message: You have got to see this. Offers from Florida State, Alabama and pretty much everyone else followed. By the end of the summer, and before he’d had a chance to play another high school game, Cooper was one of the top receiver recruits in the country.

In the piece on The Athletic, Staples makes sure to point out how differently things could have gone had Cooper been going through the recruiting process now. The 7-on-7 tournaments where he turned heads would have been canceled, and he would not have had the opportunity to run routes and catches passes in front of Nick Saban in Tuscaloosa if camps were off limits due to the pandemic.

So, what would have happened to Cooper’s career? Coming off an injury that shortened his junior season, would coaches have wanted to take a chance on a prospect that was behind the depth chart at his own school with limited film and without the chance of evaluating him in person ahead of his senior campaign?

Staples talked to Luther Campbell, who was on staff at Cooper’s school, where he thinks the future first-rounder would have landed in an offseason such as the one we are seeing unfold right now.

I asked Campbell recently where Cooper might have ended up had he faced the circumstances that members of the class of 2021 are facing. “He probably would have ended up at a mid-major — not Power 5,” said Campbell, who is now the head coach at Miami’s Edison High. And that’s if his high school coaches called in some favors. It’s also possible, Campbell said, that a player like Cooper in that situation might have landed at an HBCU if Group of 5 coaches had been shy about offering because of a lack of game footage.

Sure, talent almost always wins out and there is a good chance that Cooper would have starred anywhere he went and moved on to the NFL. Still, there is no guarantee that he would have had anywhere near the kind of career like he did at Alabama — earning consensus All-American honors, winning the Biletnikoff Award, and being drafted in the top-5 of the NFL Draft.

Meanwhile, Cooper has found more success on the professional level, especially after arriving in the Lone Star State. The Alabama product has provided a go-to target for quarterback Dak Prescott, has earned multiple Pro Bowl nods, and is regarded as one of the best wideouts in football.

It is crazy to think that things could be a lot different had Amari Cooper not been able to attend a prospect camp in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, in June 2011.