The smartest guy on the field: Central Michigan's Cooper Rush has brains to be NFL QB, but will that be enough?
MOUNT PLEASANT, Mich. — The lights are on in Conference Room B at Central Michigan's indoor football complex, though only one seat is occupied. Cooper Rush is alone before the projection screen, front and center in a gray sweatshirt and sandals, with a remote control/laser pointer in hand. It's Monday afternoon, and the Chippewas' fifth-year senior quarterback is devouring dozens of film cut-ups on the forthcoming opponent, fellow MAC contender Western Michigan. Normally Rush does this from his couch on an iPad. But he's happy to do his homework here because it helps him procrastinate on homework elsewhere: The guy who graduated in May with a 3.89 grade-point average in actuarial sciences laments a two-page paper for a sports management class due the next day. "It sucks," Rush grumbles. "But it shouldn't be too bad."
No, his is a mind for numbers, be they on spreadsheets or stat sheets. Reading safeties instead of novels has led to more than 10,000 career passing yards in a pro-style offense that features manifold concepts and relies on its signal-caller to, well, call the signals, instead of looking to the coaches on the sideline for pre-snap answers. Will this ability to swiftly process information into production make this 6' 3", 230-pounder the next obscure quarterback gem unearthed by an NFL franchise? Maybe. Maybe not. For now, Central Michigan's triggerman seeks only to dig up ways to beat an in-state rival.
Film study is an efficient Rush job: The clips roll fast, but he absorbs it all. Rush watches a Western Michigan linebacker trail a back in motion. "Boom, you see that, it's Cover 1," he says of a cut-up from the teams' 2015 game. "Both sides will be open here." The play rolls, and Rush indeed completes a pass to the flat. Moments later, he watches a safety drift back, well off a Central Michigan tight end in the middle of the field. Rush opted to throw an eight-yard out; a good read, but he notes a better one. That safety playing soft left the tight end unmonitored. "I can take this all day if I wanted," he says.
A linebacker releasing a receiver tells Rush he'll have an open dig route from that formation. A cornerback with shoulders square to a receiver is prone to "hole shot" passes arced over his head. And thanks to a dry sense of humor—he has been known to Snapchat videos of himself singing Taylor Swift tunes—Rush also highlights what not to repeat. "Wow, this is unathletic," he says. "Watch this." On a 2015 play against Western Michigan, Rush scrambles and, after a cut some 20 yards downfield, essentially trips over himself and tumbles to the turf. "I got up, and the ref was laughing," Rush says. "He said, 'Oh, man, you were moving.'"
This session ends after roughly 90 minutes. The clues Rush collects go for naught, ultimately: Five days hence, the Broncos will thrash the Chippewas 49–10. Rush will throw for just 178 yards while getting sacked eight times. Afterward, Rush's coach, John Bonamego, will say he'd rather go through chemotherapy again than endure such a bruising defeat. It is not a result Rush could see coming, but then he puts in the work for reasons beyond those results. "I pride myself on being the smartest guy on the field," Rush says. The question is how far that can take him.
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Cooper Rush's itinerary from Charlotte, Mich. (pop 9,074) to one college scholarship offer to the NFL's radar is not typical but neither is it unfamiliar. Fourteen MAC quarterbacks have been drafted since 1998—Chad Pennington (2000), Byron Leftwich (2003) and Ben Roethlisberger (2004) were first-round selections—and 73 players from the conference currently occupy NFL rosters spots. And Rush did demand to play quarterback as soon as he began organized football as fifth-grader.
Still, his trajectory hasn't been otherwise direct. He didn't have a personal coach like so many aspiring passers. ("Never really thought of it," he says.) He played for Lansing Catholic High, which serves 535 students and competes in the fifth-largest division of the state's eight classes. And he was physically unremarkable; Lansing Catholic was smallish, but Rush was not. "I was the same weight in high school as I am now," he says, "but it was much different."
His father, Matt, puts it less delicately. "Kind of a Pillsbury dough boy," Matt Rush says of his son. "He had the Rush paunch."
Still, nearly 50 years into a coaching career that comprised stints in college, the NFL and the USFL, Morris Watts was drawn to Rush's accuracy, his pocket presence and his passion. After watching Rush play through a rainstorm and nevertheless heave spirals 40 to 50 yards downfield, Central Michigan's offensive coordinator was convinced. No one else was—Rush attended camps at Bowling Green, Miami (Ohio) and Toledo without much traction—so a commitment soon followed.
"Now," Watts says, "do you know that's how it's going to be?"
That refers to Rush, as a redshirt freshman in 2013, relieving starter Alex Niznak in the second quarter of a Week 2 game against New Hampshire and throwing for 326 yards and three touchdowns. He's completed 62.1% of his career passes for 10,881 yards and 81 touchdowns without the schematic advantage of working in a pass-happy spread attack. He's been to the ESPY Awards; a Hail Mary as time expired in the 2014 Bahamas Bowl earned Rush and four teammates a Best Play nomination the next summer. Another epic, controversial Hail Mary completion from Rush boosted Central Michigan over Oklahoma State and into the national spotlight in Week 2 of this season. Meanwhile, Rush, who ranks ninth in MAC history in both career passing yards and career passing touchdowns, has evolved into at least a curiosity for NFL teams.
Six pro scouts attended the Chippewas' season-opener against…Presbyterian, an opponent not exactly known for churning out pro talent. "Do I think he has the ability? I do," says Bonamego, as he sits across from a screen framed by sideline passes from his 16 years as an NFL assistant. "I think he'll get a chance to prove that. He's a big, strong guy, but he's not a statue. He can move and slide in the pocket. He can make all the different throws. And he's highly intelligent, both intellectually and football smart. And he's got that burning desire to learn and improve."
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The beautiful mind is Rush's foremost asset. An actuarial science major at Central Michigan involves 60-plus class hours of math, statistics, accounting, economics, finance, business law and computer science to prepare the students to be professional risk-assessors. And roommate Kevin D'Arcy has seen the assignments Rush brought home. "It's really confusing," says D'Arcy, a senior reserve offensive lineman. "It's math without numbers." Saylor Lavalli watched as friends took the same classes as Rush and grinded through. As for Rush, his former roommate? "Two hours before the class, he reads over the chapter, scanned it over during commercials, and he goes in there and aces the exam," says Lavalli, a player-turned-student assistant for the Chippewas. In the summer of 2015, due to schedule conflicts at Central Michigan, Rush had to take an online Calculus 3 class from Michigan Tech. It was his first online course. He didn't like figuring out everything himself. He says it was the hardest class he's taken.
"Well, I mean, I got an A," Rush says. "But it wasn't a breeze."
That mind can work in mysterious ways, too. Rush arrived at Central Michigan effectively unable to prepare food or fold clothes; microwave lasagna counted as a home-cooked meal. Years earlier, when Matt Rush attempted to teach his son how to collect leaves, Cooper held the rake with just one hand, at the end of the handle. And once, Cooper asked his mother how to turn the lawnmower so he could overlap cut lines like she did. ("I just wanted to do it faster," Rush insists now.) Then there's the near-fugue state Rush enters when he is focused on a text message, or a film clip, while someone attempts to engage him. His roommates regularly get his attention only after throwing shoes or water bottles. "What do they call it, compartmentalization?" Rush says. "I'm pretty good at that. If I don't want to think about it, I don't think about it."
That surely helps winnow distractions while running a pro scheme with multiple formations, motions and protections. Before he even arrived at Central Michigan, Rush's father and brothers quizzed him on the playbook as Rush diagrammed the calls on a white dry-erase board. (His brothers then ran the routes in the backyard while Cooper went through his progressions.) Rush says he had more or less mastered the protection schemes by the time he arrived on campus, and his knowledge base swelled from there.
Nearly every Central Michigan run play is, effectively, two plays—one right, one left, and Rush must pick one based on reads. With Rush at the helm, the offense carries as many as 32 pass concepts into a game; if the Chippewas had to start one of their young backups, Watts says, the number would be shaved to perhaps 12.
Rush's decisiveness, despite the density of information, distinguishes him. "He just knows what the key things are to process, and then get the ball out of your hand and get it to the right guy," Watts says of his protégé. "He's truly a see-and-react guy."
The package should give franchises a decent like-for-like estimation of Rush's capacity to run an offense. "If you've ever seen an NFL playbook, it's not like one encyclopedia," Bonamego says. "It's the entire set of encyclopedias." Nor should anyone have leadership concerns; Rush sat in on meetings with every offensive position over the summer and even ran the confabs with receivers and tight ends, discussing route depth and explaining how certain patterns clear space for others.
All that's left are extensive examinations of how Rush's measurables measure up. Part of that will be results-driven, which makes long nights like last Saturday all the more lamentable. In his last six games against power-conference teams, Rush has completed 65.3% percent of his passes for an average of 309 yards per outing, with nine touchdowns against five interceptions. Respectable, if not gaudy, numbers. But duds like Western Michigan likely will be tossed into that mix, too, given that it is a high-profile event against a top opponent that may not lose a game the rest of the season.
"Scouting is basically evaluating skill set and using that evaluation to predict future performance," one NFL scout says. "Part of that is evaluating how they do against their best competition and how they react in key moments. When I go into Central Michigan, I'm going to evaluate them against their best competition. If (Rush) plays poorly, it makes it hard to give him a good grade."
That is a generalization, naturally, and Rush's career can't be distilled to one bad night. But it reflects the context in which the NFL will consider Cooper Rush, and how much his mind actually matters: Will his right arm and legs permit him to do what his brain tells him to do? "Certainly good, certainly skilled," says a different veteran NFL scout who has tracked the MAC extensively and has watched film of Rush. "When I looked at him and he started to drop and move around—not a top athlete. More touch than pure ballistics on the ball, where you go, 'Oh my gosh.' He checks a lot of the other boxes. He's smart, he's big, he's accurate, he's won, he's elevated his team. He'll be an interesting guy to follow."
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It's 54 degrees and cloudy at Kelly Shorts Stadium on a Tuesday morning, and the wind is fickle. Many of Rush's throws are perfect, even in the moderately challenging practice conditions: An impeccable ball to junior receiver Mark Chapman on a flag route, 20 yards downfield, or a pass zipped to senior Austin Stewart on a quick out. Some are less than perfect. A couple attempts flutter, and when Rush throws behind a receiver on a slant, he claps his hands, bends at the waist backward and then all the way forward, appalled at his misfire.
But this is as demonstrative as Rush gets before he turns to the next set of signals. He's eager to prove what he can do, given the next opportunity. It's a bit of a leitmotif in his life. "All you need is one chance," Rush says. "You don't need 1,000 offers. You just need to be happy in a good situation. And if you have enough talent, they find it."
They'll look, anyway, as the case of Cooper Rush remains an open investigation—the events of last Saturday notwithstanding. Even Rush remains vexed about what happened against Western Michigan, a couple days removed. He says he didn't see anything new. There were no surprises. The schemes were schemes he'd seen before. He's left to conclude the other team just played much faster and better than his did, and that is perhaps the one shocking development in all of it.
"It definitely hurt," Rush says. "[Sunday] was no fun for anybody. But we don't have time to sulk."
So by about 5 p.m. the day after, Central Michigan's postmortem review and team meetings are finished. Rush returns to his apartment, does some homework, and then settles in to digest some Ball State clips. The theme of the week is honing fundamentals that may have eluded the Chippewas in back-to-back defeats. It's pad level up front, or receivers running the correct routes, or the quarterback concentrating on his footwork and making sure his drops and pocket movement are precise.
Identifying those shortcomings and correcting them are the only way to get back on track, and to get Cooper Rush where he wants to go, in every sense. The smartest guy on the field sees it every week, one way or another: Film never lies.