Cooper aiming for NFL not major leagues


Florida's Riley Cooper and Gator head coach Urban Meyer celebrate following the Gators 24-14 victory over the University of South Carolina in Columbia Saturday, November 14, 2009.

Doug Finger/Staff photographer
Published: Tuesday, January 26, 2010 at 9:53 a.m.
Last Modified: Tuesday, January 26, 2010 at 9:53 a.m.

MOBILE, Ala. — Since agreeing to terms with the Texas Rangers last summer, Riley Cooper has been on a path to a professional baseball career. But just when the Rangers were set to start paying him, Cooper called a quick audible and changed his route, electing instead to run a fly pattern straight into the NFL.

"Football is the route I want to take," the former Florida wide receiver said. "I'm excited about what this week is going to bring us. It's going to be good."

On Jan. 17, Cooper was supposed to show up in Texas for a physical with the Rangers, who then would pay Cooper half the signing bonus the two sides agreed on last summer after Texas drafted him in the 25th round of the Major League Draft.

Cooper never showed up. Now, Cooper is at the Senior Bowl, running patterns and catching passes in front of hundreds of NFL coaches and scouts. His pro football career is being launched this week.

"It's wild, man," he said. "It has been a real whirlwind."

After Cooper signed with the Rangers, the team took three weeks to ponder Cooper's proposal that he be allowed to stay at Florida and play football his senior season. Texas eventually agreed. Now, the Rangers have lost a prospect to professional football.

Cooper said he started feeling the pull of the NFL late in what turned out to be a breakout season in football. Cooper emerged as UF's top wide receiver in 2009, catching 51 passes for 961 yards and nine touchdowns. He closed it out with one of the best performances of his career — nine receptions for 181 yards and a touchdown in the Sugar Bowl.

"Kind of toward the last couple of games of the seasons, I knew that's what I wanted to do," he said. "My makeup and mentality, stuff like that. I'm just kind of a football player, not a baseball player. That's what I'm going to concentrate on."

Cooper said he has not talked to the Rangers. He left that up to his father, Larry, to handle.

"I was supposed to show up for a physical (with the Rangers) Jan. 17 and get half my signing bonus," Cooper said. "But I said, 'I'm going to go football, that's what I want to do. I appreciate everything you did for me, but I'm out.' They kind of just talked to my dad. He said he took care of it.

"Probably before the bowl game, (the Rangers) knew (I might stick with football). They kept calling him, calling him right after the bowl game."

So baseball is out and football is in for Cooper, who said he received some favorable opinions about his pro potential from the NFL before he made his decision to drop baseball.

"They said (round) two, three or four," he said.

Cooper said he did not receive any advice from his roommate, All-America quarterback Tim Tebow, who has been throwing passes to Cooper this week in practice.

"He just said, 'I'm praying for you Riley. You'll make the right decision,' " Cooper said.

So far, Cooper has been one of the most impressive receivers on the South team. He has consistently beaten man-to-man coverage and caught numerous passes.

He said it's been a little strange having so many coaches and scouts watching his every move.

"It's different," he said. "I didn't expect the Senior Bowl to be like this. I knew a lot of NFL guys would be here. I didn't know I'd be weighing in (Sunday) in front of 600 scouts. I've never been naked in front of 600 people before. It's an experience."

Cooper said he's also going to participate in the NFL Combine in March. To get ready for the Combine and the draft, Cooper will be working out in Gainesville under UF strength and conditioning coordinator Mickey Marotti.

"Coach Mick, he's awesome," Cooper said. "Percy (Harvin) did the same thing. I'm on a similar route as he was in the last draft. It's going to be good."

Cooper said the one thing he doesn't like about the NFL so far is that he's listed as a 4.5-second guy in the 40-yard dash. He says he's faster that that and will prove it by running at the Combine.

"I want to run," he said. "I ain't no 4.5 guy."

He's not a baseball guy anymore, either, and he seems comfortable with that.

"I'm going to miss (baseball)," Cooper said. "I've been playing football and baseball my whole life. Now that it's going to be only one sport, I'm going to miss it. But I think it's going to benefit me health-wise and having an offseason I haven't had since I was 13 years old. It will be good."

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