Mychal Cooper’s college football career will come to an end this Saturday when Navy meets Army in the 122nd annual edition of the classic rivalry.
When the senior wide receiver takes off his uniform following the contest, it will be for the last time. That’s because the Midshipmen did not qualify for a bowl game for the third time in Cooper’s four years with the program.
“It’s definitely on my mind,” Cooper said. “It probably won’t hit me until the week afterwards … when I’m cleaning out of my locker.”
Cooper has been Navy’s go-to receiver for the better part of his career and has made the most of his opportunities in an option offense that asks the wideouts to do more run blocking than pass-catching.
When the 6-foot-5, 220-pound Texas native was asked about the limited opportunities during his career to display his playmaking abilities, his answer was what one would expect from a team captain who has been referred to by his coaches as someone who sets the standard on and off the field.
“I have full faith in the coaches and my teammates. Football is all about getting the best personnel in the best spots to win,” Cooper said. “I’m not going to sit here and say I should get the ball more because I have full faith that who the coaches get the ball to will give us the best opportunity to win.”
Perhaps one of the reasons Cooper gets fewer opportunities through the air is because he’s so good at clearing a path for teammates such as slotback and fellow offensive captain Chance Warren.
“Blocking is Coop’s calling card,” said Warren. “He has gotten me into the end zone so many times. You look at any touchdowns I’ve scored, you will see No. 3 out there blocking for 15 or 20 seconds.”
Navy has occasionally found creative ways to get Cooper touches, but that was mainly earlier in his career when he carried the ball on a rare wide receiver reverse. However, one trick play he has yet to try is throwing a pass. Why is that?
“Chance Warren can throw the ball better than me. I haven’t been the guy to get the reverse and throw the ball. I have been the guy who stops and goes and catches the ball,” said Cooper.
Cooper has been part of a receiving corps that has caught passes from nine different quarterbacks in the past four years. He admitted it would have been nice “to have one consistent quarterback [during] my time here,” he said.
“When it comes to trust, that is the one thing that [you can] solidify over time. I know I’ve had at least six different quarterbacks throw me a touchdown,” he said.
Wide receiver coach Mick Yokitis agreed the revolving door at quarterback has been less than ideal for his senior wideout, who has 866 career receiving yards.
“It’s a challenge, especially for guys who are detailed like Coop. Spending those hours in the off-season, working with that [same] guy. It helps to know when that ball is coming and where it is going,” Yokitis said.
Despite those challenges, Cooper remains upbeat going into his last game. “I’m very appreciative of this year. I really like Tai [Lavatai]. He is a tough guy. He is consistent,” he said.
Cooper is also grateful this Saturday’s game is back to being played in a neutral location. Due to the pandemic, the 2020 Army-Navy game was played at Michie Stadium in West Point. The Black Knights beat the Midshipmen 15-0 on their home field.
“I appreciate the neutrality of the game [returning],” he added.
This year’s game, being held at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, New Jersey, will feature an Army defense that Navy’s senior wide receiver knows very well. It is led in part by a pair of hard-hitting defensive backs in senior Cedrick Cunningham and junior Marquel Broughton.
“They have a very experienced secondary, especially their safeties. When it comes to the [option], they are the ones who rally [to the ball] and make a lot of plays,” Cooper said. “We have to make sure we have a hat on those guys and can account for them. Their defense is really good and really physical.”
It’s also a defense that is responsible for what Cooper calls the lowest point of his career.
Last year, while trailing Army 3-0 in the early stages of the third quarter, quarterback Xavier Arline broke through the defense for a 52-yard run which gave Navy first-and-goal from 2 yards out. The next four plays have been ingrained in Cooper’s mind ever since.
“We had a chance to go into their house and beat them. That drive when we were on the 2-yard line and couldn’t punch it in. ... Since [that goal-line stand], our mantra has been to get our feet in the end zone.”
Cooper has also enjoyed many positive memories, including Navy’s victory over Air Force in 2019, which he considers his finest moment. At the beginning of the second quarter, the Midshipmen had no offensive momentum and trailed 3-0. That changed quickly thanks in large part to Cooper.
“As a Navy wide receiver, you are kind of waiting for your number to be called and when your number is called you have to make a play,” he said. “And in that game, the coach said, ‘Hey Coop you are going to run a post and we need you to make a play.’ I made a diving catch that got the offense going and we started rolling after that.”
Cooper stretched out for a 38-yard highlight-reel grab of a Malcolm Perry pass set up Navy at the Air Force 25-yard line and led to a touchdown that made it 7-3. Cooper recorded three receptions for 90 yards for the Mids in what turned out to be a thrilling 34-25 victory over the Falcons.
One of the senior’s other career highlights came off the field. Earlier this year, Cooper was named Navy’s “Captain of Captains.”
“It’s a motivating position and an honor because it’s voted on by your peers. It’s been a good opportunity to meet and interact with people that I wouldn’t normally have. I’ve really appreciated that,” said Cooper.
When asked which classmates he has enjoyed interacting with and getting to know, Cooper was quick to name numerous varsity sports captains, including Ryan York of the squash team.
“I talk to [Ryan] a good amount. He’s a great guy and I’m looking forward to getting out to one of his matches since their season goes into next semester,” he said.
Without football commitments, Cooper is sure to have more free time during his last five months at the academy. While the San Antonio product will be sad to see his playing days end, he won’t miss taking part in the team’s annual spring conditioning program known as “fourth quarters.”
“It’s just a miserable experience,” Cooper said with a chuckle. “It happens in late February/early March and it’s cold. I’m going to sleep in this year. But since they record it, maybe I’ll watch it later to see who is suffering.”
Not surprisingly, Yokitis said Cooper’s leadership, athleticism, and work ethic are going to be tough to replace. However, the football program’s loss will be the fleet’s gain.
“He is just an amazing individual and is going to be an outstanding leader,” Yokitis said.
Cooper’s leadership skills will find a home in the surface warfare community, a career path he chose because it will give him the opportunity to travel the world. If Cooper gets the ship he wants, it will also provide a chance to interact with some good friends.
“I’d hope to be able to select an amphibious landing ship, seeing how they work closely with Marines,” he said. “I have a lot of good friends who will be Marines, and I’d love to see them on my ship one day.”
Before embarking on that part of his journey in the Navy, Cooper hopes to close out his football career with a win. While he said he would have liked to have experienced more victories over the last four seasons, Cooper appreciated the entire experience of playing football in Annapolis.
“I wouldn’t change anything for the world. You don’t come to a school and expect to lose. We expect to win at the Naval Academy, but at the same time you also expect to grow,” he said. ‘We have all of these close losses to good teams. Despite the record, despite the shortcomings, guys are still hanging together. We haven’t rolled over yet. You just learn from it all.”
Those learning opportunities, according to Cooper, went well beyond running routes and scoring touchdowns — a fact he attributes to coach Ken Niumatalolo.
“I’m forever grateful for all of the coaches. I could talk about them for hours and that is a testament to the kind of man Coach Niumat is. I hope to emulate a lot of his characteristics in my life,” Cooper said.
MetLife Stadium, East Rutherford, N.J.
Saturday, 3 p.m.
TV: Chs. 13, 9 Radio: 1430 AM
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Line: Army by 8 ½