JACKSONVILLE, ALA. — When Zerrick Cooper was officially announced as a Jacksonville State enrollee on National Signing Day in February 2018, Gamecocks head coach John Grass followed with a profound statement about the quarterback.
“I had a conversation with (Clemson head coach) Dabo Swinney and he told me, ‘When you hold your first practice and see him on the field, you’re going to wonder if I’m crazy for letting him leave,’” Grass told reporters.
That’s when curiosity began to creep in and eyebrows rose.
What did Grass mean by that statement? How good is Zerrick? Will he be better than former All-American Eli Jenkins? Is he going to lead the Gamecocks back to the success that surrounded the team in 2015? What about Zion Webb?
With rumors regarding the status of then-quarterback Bryant Horn swirling and another ‘one-and-done’ for the Gamecocks in the FCS Playoffs, speculation about Cooper’s abilities began to fly. Fans and alumni were really buying in to a guy that was, for the most part, kept on a leash during Jacksonville State’s spring game April 12.
But talk began to dwindle during the summer, before being revamped in late July when preseason camp started, and Cooper appeared in front of the media.
Everyone wanted to know if it was going to be the quick-footed Webb, who redshirted during the 2017 season and drew comparisons to Jenkins, or the strong-armed Cooper, who spent last season at Clemson, to take the first snaps at quarterback for the Gamecocks.
After a month of speculation, Grass sent Cooper onto the field first when Jacksonville State opened the Guardian Credit Union FCS Kickoff against North Carolina A&T on offense. Cooper, despite a shaky first half, played all but one series in the Gamecocks’ 20-17 loss to the Aggies. He was 18 yards shy of the end zone when Antoine Wilder recovered a fumble after Aggie teammate Darryl Johnson sacked Cooper with 17 seconds left in the game.
Cooper’s performance drew mixed reviews from across the country, but people can’t argue the facts. His 24 completions were the fifth most in JSU’s Division I history. The 320 passing yards were 11th most and helped him become just the seventh JSU QB to throw for 300-or-more yards in a game.
In his Gamecock debut, Cooper finished with 352 yards of total offense (320 passing, 32 rushing), which was the 10th most in JSU’s Division I history for a single game.
“From the beginning (the game) didn’t start out as well as I wanted it to,” Cooper said. “Of course, first game, first college start … I was kind of anxious and the motor was running. But throughout the game, I settled down, helped my team take the lead, made a couple plays and moved the ball as a quarterback should.
“Then the last play of the game, I wish I could have that back, but the defensive end just made a great play and you really can’t do anything about that. You just have to move forward and learn.”
While many questions were not answered — rightfully so — after Jacksonville State’s season-opening loss, there should be no need for panic in Jacksonville, Ala.
The Gamecocks held North Carolina A&T, which went on to beat FBS opponent East Carolina last weekend, to only 148 yards, while breaking in a quarterback that has the potential — and at least two seasons, likely three — to bring back that 2015 magic.
“I thought (Cooper) came out and got better as the game went on,” Grass said. “I thought he got a little comfortable, but still has a lot of things that he can work on and get better. But the more comfortable with the offense, the better he’s going to get. I thought everyone saw enough from him to know he can lead our offense.”