PALMYRA – Graham Zug is uniquely qualified to help Mitchell Cooper get where he’d like to go. Partly because Zug has been there himself.
And in his heart of hearts, Zug truly wants Cooper to experience the things he did. But perhaps of the utmost importance is the fact that Cooper knows expert instruction when he sees it – because a message can’t be fully received until it is accepted first.
Yeah, Cooper becoming a Division One or Division One-AA wide receiver won’t be easy. And while the Palmyra senior is diligently working towards that goal, it certainly doesn’t hurt having a former one around to show you the ropes.
Zug, who starred at receiver at Penn State from 2006-2010, is Cooper’s position coach with the Cougar football squad. Cooper, a 6-4, 185-pound pass-catching beast, is getting top-level, collegiate looks from, among others, Zug’s alma mater.
“He’s definitely my favorite coach,” said Cooper of Zug. “From a players’ perspective, you need a coach who’s easy to talk to and smart. He teaches you things you never really thought of.
“He’s played Division One college football,” Cooper continued. “He definitely has the knowledge to help me get to the next level. He’s really smart about reading defenses, and it helps me get open.”
“I think he does have Division One talent,” said Zug of Cooper. “I tell him all the time. He’s a humble guy. He doesn’t like talking about himself. He has goals, but I set goals for him as well. He knows he can be good.
“I’m really close with him,” continued Zug. “I’m close with all the receivers. I have them over to my house, and they love coming. They like to ask me about college. ‘What was it like? How big were the classes? What was Joe (Paterno) like?’ They’re young kids asking big questions. I teach them there’s life after high school, that there’s life after football. I teach them football and I also teach them life. Him and I personally are close.”
If one is slow to judge, then he or she won’t easily jump to conclusions.
A former quarterback at Manheim Central, Zug achieved the unlikely by walking on and then earning a scholarship at Penn State. During his playing days, Zug’s game was based on determination, repetition and desire.
Cooper is a physical specimen, gifted, talented. He can run faster, catch better and jump higher than most players his size. Cooper has huge upside and the sky is the limit as far as his development is concerned.
But please don’t get the impression that Zug wasn’t physically gifted, and that Cooper isn’t driven. There are some things that can be taught, and others that can’t.
“He listens,” said Zug of Cooper. “Everything I give him – he’s like a sponge – he takes it in. ‘Coop’ has great hands. He’s running college-level routes in high school. That’s why he’s a good receiver. Somebody’s going to get a gem of a player on the next level. He’s sort of an unknown quantity, like I was in high school.
“I constantly say that it’s hard to find things for him to improve on,” said Zug. “He’s making tough catches. One of the things I prided myself on was making every single catch. Now, you can’t do that. But it’s a mindset. His route-running is phenomenal. His hands are phenomenal. His football sense is improving. He’s becoming a student of the game.
“He’s working hard everyday. He’s constantly asking me what he can do to get better. He’s coach-able, and he’s appreciative. He’s not done growing vertically, and he’s not done growing muscle-wise.”
“I’ve watched him play,” said Cooper of Zug. “I’d say the biggest thing I’ve learned from him is to stay humble when you’re on the field. Give it your all. And if you don’t, give it your all the next play. I do talk on the field sometimes. I use it as an advantage when I’m out there.
“I do put a lot of pressure on myself,” added Cooper. “Sometimes I put too much pressure on myself. I do have a big opportunity to get noticed this year. Last year it was hard to make big plays with the teams we were playing.”
For Cooper, the recruiting process is about to intensify. He’s gotten interest from Division One-AA programs Colgate and Fordham, but recently he was contacted by Division Ones Missouri and Penn State, which Zug notified on Cooper’s behalf.
“Yes, I’d like to play football in college,” said Cooper, who accompanied Zug to last season’s Michigan at Penn State game. “I’m currently in the process of setting up visits. I’ve been receiving a lot of mail at the school.
“The area I definitely need to improve on is the class room,” continued Cooper. “The past couple of years I haven’t been thinking about college football. I put my grades to the side, and now I have to play catch-up.”
“He knows he has all the potential in the world,” said Zug of Cooper. “He’s way ahead of me when I was in high school. I tell him to ‘just give it your all. If you do, the catches will come, the yards will come and the college coaches will come.’ Stats aren’t always the answer.
“We need to continue to get his name out there,” Zug continued. “Last year, he was one of the top receivers in the state. Missouri found him on their own. I got in touch with Penn State. We might have to reach out to other schools. He’s been playing multiple sports here. Once he gets into the weight room every day, he’s going to blow up.”
While it may be Zug’s personal mission to bring the best out of him, Cooper has already come a long, long way. Under Zug’s tutelage, Cooper has learned to channel his talents.
“Back then, he was going off pure athletic ability,” said Zug of Cooper, the sophomore. “He was going off what he was taught and what he could get off the older guys. Now everything is a competition. It drives him. But he’s a leader as well. He’s helping the younger guys. He’s talking to the kids.
“He’s a great kid,” added Zug. “He’s funny. He’s popular in school, not because he’s a top athlete, but because he’s fun to be around. But when it comes to football, he’s a competitive kid.”
“We do text a lot, about random stuff,” said Cooper of Zug. “About plays we see on TV. And we go over to his house for team-building things.
“One of my goals is to definitely have more touchdowns than last year (12),” Cooper added. “I’m at four right now, so I’d say I’m on pace. I’m not too worried about yards and catches. I just do what I can to help my team.”
“Take my sophomore year and compare it to his, we’re pretty similar,” said Zug. “In his junior year, you could definitely see what I taught him. One thing I did differently, I got my name out there in my junior year. In my senior year I can say he’s also right up there with me, but he’s ahead of where I was as a receiver. He can literally do every single thing on the field, without missing a beat.
“It’s (helping kids) everything to me,” added Zug. “I wouldn’t be doing it if I didn’t want to help kids. It’s a lot longer life after varsity football. If I can make an impact and help with the rest of life, then I’m doing something important. ‘Do it your hardest’. I think that’s something the kids can learn from us as coaches.”
“I always criticize myself,” said Cooper, whose Cougars are off to a 1-2 start. “I would just say if I see an open area, I tend to find an open spot, but I could just run crisper routes. I have to stay smart and not do selfish things.
“Right now, we (the Cougars) started out a little weak,” added Cooper. “We just had a rough loss to Donegal. I know we’re capable of more. We have a lot of skill guys. If we’re firing on all cylinders, I think we’ll do well.”