Prior to his senior state championship season, Pharoh Cooper committed to play football at the University of South Carolina, over in-state programs like East Carolina, North Carolina and North Carolina State.
Since committing to the Gamecocks in that summer of 2012, Cooper has won a 3A state title in high school and made the All-Freshman Team last year in the Southeastern Conference.
As a freshman, Cooper rushed 20 times for 202 yards and a touchdown, caught three passes for 54 yards and a score and passed for a touchdown against archrival Clemson.
This season, Cooper is on the preseason watch list for the Paul Hornung Award, which is given to the nation’s most versatile player.
“Pharoh has a burning desire inside him to be as good a football player as he possibly can be and that’s always special in kids,” said Steven Spurrier Jr., South Carolina’s co-offensive coordinator and son of head coach Steve Spurrier.
“He pushes the envelope, does the extra work it takes to be good and is never a worry off the field or in the classroom either. I told him in a meeting after the Clemson game that he didn’t realize how special that play he made for us in that game was.”
Cooper is expecting a much-expanded role as a sophomore in the Gamecocks’ receiving corps.
He joins returners in senior Damiere Byrd, junior Shaq Roland and redshirt senior Nick Jones as South Carolina’s prominent weapons at receiver for returning senior quarterback Dylan Thompson.
Thompson takes over full-time now for the departed Connor Shaw, now with the Cleveland Browns.
Cooper returned punts and kicks as a freshman and expects to return in that role as a sophomore, a role he has always excelled in even in his high school days.
“I feel real confident about our system now after having a year to get comfortable in it and we have a good quarterback in Dylan (Thompson) and coaches, and I think we are poised to have a good year,” Cooper said.
“We have our running back Mike Davis back and four of our five starting offensive linemen returning as well, so we feel really good about our offense.”
The Gamecocks went 11-2 a season ago and won the Capitol One Bowl over Wisconsin 34-24.
Cooper has a good friendship with Thompson and admits he learned a lot playing as a backup to fellow wide receiver Bruce Ellington, who left a year early for the NFL and is with the San Francisco 49ers.
“That’s the spot, Bruce’s spot, that we expect Pharoh to play in,” Spurrier Jr. said.
“He can just do so many things well on the field and when Brad (Lawing, a former South Carolina coach) recruited him, he told my dad and myself, ‘you gotta find a way to get the ball in this kid’s hands.’”
Cooper was originally expected to play cornerback at South Carolina, but was switched to wide receiver upon arriving in Columbia last season.
“I just want to get myself more involved in the games at receiver this year, do more all-purpose and whatever I can do to help the team be successful,” Cooper said.
The Gamecocks have a tough three-game home slate to open the season, kicking things off on Aug. 28 versus Texas A&M, then hosting East Carolina on Sept. 6 and welcoming Georgia into town on Sept. 13.
For Havelock fans, the highlight game on the schedule could be Nov. 1 vs. Tennessee, when former Havelock High standouts Cooper and South Carolina lineman Corey Robinson, as well as Tennessee defensive end Kendal Vickers and running back Derrell Scott could all be on the field.
Jordan Honeycutt is a reporter for the Sun Journal.