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Citadel's Cooper not a secret anymore
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In the off chance The Citadel’s Tory Cooper hadn’t caught the attention of anyone in the Southern Conference he has now.
    Up until last week the 5-foot-7, 181-pound junior was considered a reasonably decent player who was leading the Bulldogs in receiving while getting some playing time as a backup tailback.
    The days of being in the shadows are gone. For this week at least.
    In doing his best Stump Mitchell impersonation Cooper carried the ball 36 times for 206 yards last Saturday to lead the Bulldogs to a 30-27 overtime victory over Western Carolina. Mitchell, fans may recall, was a similar sized tailback who played for the Bulldogs in the 1976-80 seasons before going on to a stellar NFL career.
    This means Cooper will be a marked man Saturday when the Bulldogs (2-5, 2-2) host Georgia Southern (3-4, 2-2) in a Southern Conference game. Kickoff at Johnson-Hagood Stadium is 2 p.m.
     Cooper had done nothing at The Citadel to indicate he was capable of the game he had against the Catamounts. Going into the contest he had 196 yards on the season, and in his first two years had 10 carries for 23 yards and one catch for six yards..
     The outburst gained him SoCon offensive Player of the Week honors and has generated a buzz on the banks of the Ashley River.
     Second-year Bulldog coach Kevin Higgins said Cooper’s performance was no surprise to those close to the program.
    “He’s not a secret weapon,” said Higgins. “After spring football I shared with our people here that he’s one of the few guys on our team that could change direction and make somebody miss.
     “He’s what we hoped he would be when we recruited him,” said Higgins. “He has a passion for the game and obviously helps us a great deal. In high school he played both ways. Not many high school kids wanted to tackle him.”
     Cooper currently may be the only player in Division I who is leading his team in both rushing and receiving. He now has 396 yards on 85 attempts to rank 10th in the SoCon and is the league’s seventh best receiver with 29 catches for 151 yards. He is also third in all purpose yards with 827 as he has 202 yards on kickoff returns and 78 on punt returns.
     “We felt Tory could be an outstanding football player,” said Higgins whose rebuilding process is beginning to show signs of improvement. “We were hoping he would be the guy who once the season rolled around could do that on game day. Nuru (Goodman) is a senior and he’s been getting the bulk of the work (at tailback).
     “I think Tory just ran extremely hard (against Western) and some things opened up for him,” said Higgins. “He took advantage of it. The big thing about him is that he actually got stronger as the game progressed.”
    Cooper is but a small part of the progress made by Bulldogs under Higgins who had a highly successful career with Lehigh before going to the Detroit Lions. He spent four years as quarterbacks and receivers coach with the Lions before returning to the college ranks.
     Higgins and Georgia Southern head coach Brian VanGorder are the only head coaches in the conference with NFL experience. The Dogs’ improvement has not been lost on VanGorder.
     “The Citadel is one of those teams involved in a transition a year ago,” said VanGorder who has been experiencing his ups and downs with the Eagles. “Kevin is an excellent coach and they continue to gain momentum as they learn and trust the system.
    “Right now I would think they are a very optimistic football team playing some good ball,” said VanGorder. “They’re very good on offense and their defense continues to get better.”
    The Citadel’s record is somewhat misleading in that two of the losses were to I-A teams Texas A&M (7-1) and Pitt (6-2). Another was an overtime loss to unbeaten Charleston Southern (7-0), and before you snicker the Big South is 3-2 against the SoCon this season.
    There was a strange 28-20 loss to Wofford, a game in which the Bulldogs ran 85 plays to the Terriers’ 39 and held the ball for 37 minutes. Furman prevailed 23-17 while the Dogs beat Chattanooga, 24-21, the week after the Mocs stunned Georgia Southern.
    While the playoffs are out of the question Higgins said the Bulldogs still have a goal for which to shoot:  a winning record in the SoCon, something which has not happened since 1992.
     The Citadel’s spread-option offense, similar to what Appalachian State and Elon ran against the Eagles, ranks second in the league in total offense at 404 yards per game and is first in time of possession.
     For a team like Georgia Southern the Bulldogs are a ticking time bomb. The Eagles have not lost at Johnson-Hagood since 1996, and their emotional state after last week’s draining double overtime loss to App will be important.
     “Our focus has been one game at a time and to get better each week,” said VanGorder. “I think we’ll have a tougher task of that this week as we prepare after an emotional loss like we had, but that’s what we need to do.”
     The Bulldogs have one of the better young quarterbacks in the league in junior Duran Lawson. A starter as a freshman he played only four games last year before suffering a season ending knee injury.
    Lawson has completed 141 of 224 attempts for 196.7 yards per game to rank second in the conference. Southern’s Travis Clark is third at 181.4 yards per game.
     Defensively the Dogs are small, but quick. They are led by defensive back Joshual Lawson and linebacker Andrew Rowell, both of whom are all-conference candidates.
     “They test you everywhere,” said VanGorder. “They have a good run game, and their passing concepts are outstanding. They know what they’re doing and they know how they want to do it.”