When his college career is over, LaMarcus Coker wants people to know his name. Right now, though, he's fine with a little anonymity.
When he led Southeastern Conference freshmen in rushing with 696 yards for Tennessee in 2006, Coker enjoyed more national visibility than last year, when he led Hampton University with 622. But back then, he wasn't ready for his time in the spotlight.
Dismissed from the Volunteers after reportedly failing a fourth drug test, Coker landed at Hampton last year. He's got one more season, beginning with Saturday's season opener against North Carolina Central, to live up to the next-level potential he demonstrated in Knoxville.
"I'm just trying to create good memories," said Coker, who also is Hampton's leading returning receiver with 20 catches for 265 yards and two touchdowns. "It's my senior year, my last go-round. It could very well be my last year of football that I ever play. I just feel like the NFL part of it will take care of itself."
While not a BCS heavy hitter, Hampton has produced its share of NFL players, such as Jacksonville linebacker Justin Durant and Miami defensive end Kendall Langford. Scouts know where to find HU — and who Coker is.
"No. 23. LaMarcus Coker," said Gil Brandt, NFL.com draft analyst and the vice president of player personnel for the Dallas Cowboys from 1960-89.
Noting Coker's speed — he's been timed at 4.42 seconds in the 40-yard dash — Brandt targeted Coker as a likely seventh-round pick.
"It (could) change depending on what he does this fall," Brandt said. "He's got a good chance to move up."
Scott Campbell, director of player personnel for the Washington Redskins, said a lot is riding on this season, for Coker and every college senior — most notably those in Maryland and Virginia, the states the Redskins scout most thoroughly.
Campbell said teams keep track of players who transfer from larger schools, and the circumstances surrounding those transfers.
"With the character concerns and the money we're paying these guys, we've got to certainly do our homework and make sure we're bringing the right type of guys into our locker room," Campbell said.
Coker doesn't duck the subject of his Tennessee troubles.
"It was a humbling experience, and really — it might sound funny — but I'm thankful for it," Coker said. "I think if everything would have (gone) smoothly at UT and I was in the NFL now, I might have had those problems that you see guys like (Adam) 'Pacman' Jones and Plaxico Burress having, career-ending issues. I think that my time at Hampton — the Lord sent me here to give me time to mature and grow."
In Coker's first season at Hampton, the Pirates managed just 1,170 rushing yards, eighth in the nine-team Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference. New HU offensive coordinator Terry Beauford, who was promoted from offensive line coach and looks exactly like the lineman he used to be, is determined to improve upon those numbers.
While the Pirates also return Dennis Mathis, who had 338 rushing yards last year, and Gerard Griffin, who had 172 in just five games, Beauford knows where to start.
"I'll probably be fired if (Coker) doesn't touch the ball," Beauford said. "We've got a good stable of backs. We'll be able to use him at receiver, running back and stuff like that, where we can make him a focus."
Coker, bothered last season by an ankle injury, showed flashes of explosiveness but struggled to consistently deliver. This year, Donovan Rose, the Pirates' longtime assistant who is in his first season as HU's head coach and recruited Coker from Tennessee, already has seen a difference.
"He's light years away from the way he was last year," Rose said. "It's a total about-face. I think he's serious about it and realizes you get so many choices or chances in life. … I told him, it's like a cat that's got nine lives. You're on your eighth life."
Coker has 11 more games to prove that he has combined head-turning potential with professional maturity.
"I think about it," he said. "But that can't be my main focus. For me to approach this season solely to want to go to the NFL, that would be selfish, and it wouldn't be fair to my teammates. I know if I do my part, play my role, my teammates play their role, and we all share a common goal of winning a MEAC championship and a national championship, then the NFL will take care of itself. They'll see it. They'll see me producing on the way to the championship."Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun