Pirates' Cooper providing run threat for ECU
Vintavious Cooper has emerged to give East Carolina a strong running threat in the Pirates' pass-heavy spread.
The junior college transfer has gone from sixth on the preseason depth chart to the Pirates' first 1,000-yard rusher in four seasons heading into Saturday's game against Louisiana in the New Orleans Bowl.
"I won't go as far as saying I thought I'd run for 1,000 yards this year," he said, "but I did feel like I could have a lot of production if I was able to get on the field a lot."
Cooper has started the past seven games at running back for the Pirates (8-4), averaging nearly 104 yards rushing in that span with six touchdowns.
He's rushed for 1,030 yards and seven scores for the season, earning second-team all-Conference USA honors as well as being named the league's newcomer of the year. He's also averaging 5.4 yards per carry on the season.
For coach Ruffin McNeill, Cooper's emergence has been vital for the development of first-year starter Shane Carden at quarterback.
"He's added a part to this offense," McNeill said. "He did a good job of being patient, reading blocks. I think he has allowed Shane to develop and slow down a little bit and see things, so he's been very valuable to us."
Cooper, a native of Homerville, Ga., played the past two seasons as an option quarterback at Southwest Mississippi Community College. He missed spring practice at East Carolina, putting him behind when the team started preseason camp in August.
Running backs coach Kirk Doll said offensive coordinator Lincoln Riley started slow with Cooper, setting aside a few plays each game designed to help the 5-foot-9, 189-pound runner adjust to Pirates' scheme.
Eventually, the workload increased. And after Cooper ran for 151 yards and a touchdown on 23 carries against UTEP on Sept. 29, the Pirates moved Cooper into the starting lineup.
He's been there ever since, highlighted by a 172-yard rushing effort with two touchdowns against UAB in October.
"Everything he does, whether it's school or football practice or weight lifting or whatever, he does his best," Doll said. "He's not just trying to get through practice. He's getting something out of practice. He enjoys it. He enjoys the game and the people he's around.
"I think his demeanor and his attitude has just been very good, not only for his productivity but for our team."
Cooper said playing quarterback in a run-oriented offense left him prepared him to carry the football for East Carolina. The biggest adjustments were understanding blitzes and improving pass protection, along with handling additional contact in practice as opposed to the days of being hands-off for defenders as a quarterback.
He's improved in those areas well enough to stay on the field longer. He's averaging 20 carries per game since becoming the starter, while he's also had 15 catches during that time to be a factor in the passing game.
"I want to be able to push," Cooper said. "I didn't want to come in this year and just try to take over (as a leader) and decide to be all out loud and talking, but I did want to make a positive impact on my teammates and let them know I can play."