South Carolina's Pharoh Cooper eager to build off breakout season

South Carolina junior Pharoh Cooper is his team's top returning receiver and top returning passer from last season, as well as the third-leading returning rusher.

South Carolina's Pharoh Cooper was not the best receiver last season in the Southeastern Conference.

He wasn't even the best receiver in the league with the last name Cooper. Yet the 5-foot-11, 207-pounder from Havelock, N.C., had a year to remember, and he plans to wreak havoc this season as a junior who is certain to be the focus of every opposing defense.

"I wasn't expecting to come in and have a 1,000-yard season and be the second-leading receiver in the SEC," Cooper said at SEC Media Days. "I knew who (former Alabama receiver) Amari Cooper was and saw all his headlines and stats. I was fine with the year I had, and I'm going to try and have a better year this year."

South Carolina

* Last season: 7-6 (3-5 SEC)* Opener: Sept. 3 vs. North Carolina in Charlotte (6 p.m. on ESPN)* Fun fact: South Carolina’s 40-12 overall record the past four seasons is topped in the SEC only by Alabama (48-6) and LSU (41-12).Coming ThursdayTexas A&M

A better year could result in league MVP honors, but Cooper is already the MVP as the most versatile player. He ranked second in the SEC last season with 1,136 receiving yards, and he rushed 27 times for 200 yards for an average of 7.4 yards per carry. He handled punt returns for the Gamecocks and even played some at quarterback, completing five of eight passes for 78 yards and two touchdowns.

"We call him South Carolina Pharoh, not American Pharoah," Gamecocks coach Steve Spurrier said, referencing the Triple Crown horse. "He's a really good player. He can play receiver and shotgun quarterback, and he can throw and run.

"He's really an All-American type of player."

Cooper displayed his versatility in high school and capped his prep career by playing quarterback, running back, receiver, punt returner and kickoff returner at the annual Shrine Bowl that pits the best players from North Carolina and South Carolina. He was a Freshman All-SEC selection in 2013, when he had a 71-yard touchdown run against Coastal Carolina and a 26-yard touchdown pass to Brandon Wilds that clinched a fifth consecutive win over rival Clemson.

After teaming with Connor Shaw as a freshman and Dylan Thompson last season, Cooper will be adjusting to his third quarterback in as many years in Columbia. Connor Mitch, who completed two of six passes for 19 yards last season as a redshirt freshman, is considered a slight favorite for the starting role.

Mitch could be challenged in camp by redshirt junior Perry Orth and true freshman Lorenzo Nunez.

"I wouldn't say it's been tougher this year, but we are kind of wondering who's going to be the quarterback," Cooper said. "That's the most important position on the field, so it's a concern right now. They're competing every day and making each other better, so may the best man come out and be our starting quarterback."

Wilds is back along with Cooper, as are three starters on the offensive line. The defense has eight starters back from a unit that gave up 34 or more points seven times last season.

Spurrier hired Jon Hoke, who ran his final three defenses at Florida from 1999 to 2001, as his defensive coordinator after last season's 7-6 finish that followed three consecutive 11-2 records.

"We're going to do a whole lot better than people think we're going to do," Cooper said. "We know we're a good team. We're young right now, but we're working hard to get back to that 10- or 11-win season.

"My personal goal is to be better than last year. I don't know how many yards I'll have, but I want to be better than last year."

Contact David Paschall at [email protected] or 423-757-6524.

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* Vanderbilt linebacker Bowden eager to improve under Mason* Texas A&M's Mike Matthews continues family tradition * South Carolina's Pharoh Cooper eager to build off breakout season * Evan Boehm a founding member of Mizzou's SEC journey * Mississippi State DE Ryan Brown wants fun ride to continue * LSU tailback Fournette ready for super sophomore year * Engram a proven star for the rising Rebels * Melvin Lewis takes a different road to shine for Kentucky * John Theus seeks big finish to UGA football career * Bullard, Gators expect to be strong again defensively * Jonathan Jones looking to lead defensive resurgence for Auburn * Arkansas QB Allen happy with his role * Ragland eager to lead Alabama defensive improvement