NFL-bound Kupp driven to success

(STATS) - To think Cooper Kupp would be relaxing today had he entered the NFL Draft last year is probably inaccurate.

Unless he was playing in the Pro Bowl or Super Bowl, he's be coming out of his rookie season, so some R&R would be deserving.

Most likely, one of the greatest wide receivers in college football history would have dived into working on some skill already.

Kupp chose to come back for his final season at Eastern Washington, and after what Carson Wentz did last year, there's a new attention-grabbing FCS player at the Reese's Senior Bowl being held this week in Mobile, Alabama.

A week's worth of practices and meetings between players and NFL teams lead into college football's most prestigious all-star game on Saturday.

In the 23-year-old Kupp, his future NFL team will be getting a "football junkie," as he was called by Senior Bowl staff.

"I don't think I'll ever be at a point where I feel like any part of my game is good to go," said Kupp, who is generally considered a third-round draft choice.

"I think that's the mind-set of how to do it, is every part of my game needs to continuously be improved. I have this firm belief that when I step on the field that I believe I'm the best player on the field, but I also believe that I'm not good enough yet. Because of that, I need to make sure that I'm striving to improve every aspect of my game."

Kupp's drive to get better was quenched by his senior season at Eastern Washington after he decided against entering last year's draft as a fourth-year junior. The Eagles went 12-2, won a share of the Big Sky title and came within a last-second touchdown by Youngstown State of reaching the FCS championship game.

The 6-foot-1, 215-pound receiver probably wouldn't haven't gone much lower in the draft a year ago than this year. But as a senior, the 2013 Jerry Rice Award winner (FCS freshman of the year) and 2015 Walter Payton Award winner (FCS offensive player of the year) cemented his place in college football history.

A four-time FCS first-team All-American, Kupp's consistency was off the charts. He ended his Eastern Washington career with 26 school, 11 conference and 15 FCS records. His 428 receptions, 6,464 receiving yards and 73 touchdown catches are the most in Division I history.

"This game's all about learning," he said. "And to have just another year of continuing to learn and absorb and study receivers. Just this last year, we ran a different offense and different ideas and concepts. Every coach has a different philosophy, not every coach runs the same thing, so that was one of the things this year that I got the opportunity to do, I got to run different routes than I have before, run them and understand progression and reads for a quarterback and how that changes."

Kupp grew up with a dream to play in the NFL. His grandfather, Jake, was an offensive guard in the league and is in the New Orleans Saints' Hall of Fame, while his father, Craig, was a quarterback in the NFL for a brief period. They helped instill in Kupp that he needed to give his all to whatever he wanted to do.

He pursues perfection - unobtainable in many ways, but still his goal.

"It's just a will and an amazing mindset that he has," said Beau Baldwin, Kupp's former head coach at Eastern Washington. "He is talented - he is talented in every aspect of what it is to be a wide receiver. People want to knock him for his speed, but he still runs behind people over and over again. He took a bubble screen 73 yards against Oregon and a Pac-12 team with a lot of speed. So Cooper is plenty fast. The thing that takes him over the top in comparing him to other receivers in the country is his will. You marvel when you see him out there doing what he is doing. Somebody asked him how he breaks so many tackles, and it's very simple to him: 'I don't like to be tackled so I refuse to be tackled.' That's a mindset."

In four career games against Pac-12 opponents - including two wins - Kupp totaled 40 receptions, 716 receiving yards and 11 touchdown catches. He also caught a touchdown against another FBS program, Toledo, and faced many traditional FCS powers over his four seasons, including North Dakota State, Northern Iowa, Montana, Richmond, Jacksonville State and Sam Houston State. The Eagles won 41 games in that time.

He might lack breakaway NFL speed, but he gains so many yards after the catch. Many believe he projects to being a slot receiver believe he routinely runs crisp routes and will box out defenders to provide a reliable target for his quarterback. With the ball, he uses a stiff arm to gain leverage on a would-be tackler.

Eric Galko of Optimum Scouting doesn't believe Kupp is limited to the slot: "In a good, not great, receiver class, Kupp may be in the top three in terms of longer, possession receivers, but Kupp can be much more than that. Physical, downfield threatening and ideally built, Kupp is an NFL-ready outside receiver who should be a plus athlete through the process for an outside, well-built receiver."

"I've studied a lot of different players throughout the years," Kupp said. "One of the ones that I think I've pulled a lot of his stuff and tried to incorporate into my game, and that's Larry Fitzgerald. The way that he's able to recognize schemes, pre-snap, allows him to play faster once the play starts. He knows exactly what he needs to do, exactly what leverage he needs to gain. That's a big, big thing.

"But at the same time, I think I move better than Fitz does, I think I'm able to create separation. So I think a mixture of between him and even the way Antonio Brown runs his route, his quickness to create separation, where it might not be as much tools and understanding the game as it is just being able to use your body to create separation and run away from defenders."

Kupp points to an NFL star like Arizona Cardinals running back David Johnson and a potential future star in Wentz, the Philadelphia Eagles' quarterback, to emphasize the talent level that can be found in the FCS, adding the "divide (from the FBS) might not be as big as a lot of people think it is."

Come Saturday, Cooper Kupp expects to be the best player on the field in the Senior Bowl.

If not, he'll go right back to work to make it happen the next time.

"He wants to understand the whole game of football better and he wants to continue to grow in everything he is doing," Baldwin said. "That's just how he is wired."

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There are 10 former FCS players on the two Senior Bowl rosters.

Joining Kupp on the North squad are Bucknell offensive tackle Julie'n Davenport, Lamar cornerback Brendan Langley, Saint Francis free safety Lorenzo Jerome and Youngstown State defensive end Derek Rivers.

Two Tennessee State players, offensive guard Jessamen Dunker and cornerback Ezra Robinson, are part of the South roster along with defensive ends Keionta Davis of Chattanooga and Tanoh Kpassagnon of Villanova and Grambling State wide receiver Chad Williams.Saturday's game begins at 2:30 p.m. ET on NFL Network.

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