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University of Florida Gators wide receiver Riley Cooper returns to the team with a professional baseball contract in hand

Riley Cooper, left, greets quarterback and roommate Tim Tebow at Florida’s first practice this month. Cooper, who signed with the Rangers last week, had played only baseball since January.

Associated Press

Riley Cooper, left, greets quarterback and roommate Tim Tebow at Florida’s first practice this month. Cooper, who signed with the Rangers last week, had played only baseball since January.

GAINESVILLE — It was the first preseason scrimmage, and wide receiver Riley Cooper had been in pads just six days. He hadn't played football since January, so he, his coaches and his Gators teammates were eager to see how quickly he would return to form.

It didn't take long Saturday to realize Cooper hadn't missed a beat. The guy who would just as soon hit somebody as catch a big-time pass was back.

"He caught a ball, and he had wide-open space," fellow receiver David Nelson said. "He could have scored a touchdown, but he chose to try to run over (defensive back) Adrian Bushell.

"In a game, he would try to score the touchdown. Right now he just brings that physical-receiver mentality to the receivers, and that's something that we really need. … He's a hard-nosed receiver; he's that tough mentality. He'll catch the ball and run somebody over. He doesn't like to juke you."

That is the mentality the receivers would have been missing if Cooper hadn't found a way to live two dreams: playing professional baseball and returning to Florida for his senior football season with the preseason's No. 1 team.

"I didn't try to influence his decision, but he knew all along we wanted him back," said quarterback Tim Tebow, who is Cooper's roommate. "He brings a different dimension to our team, his toughness, and he has the ability to make big catches, so we're really happy to have him back."

Friday, the former Clearwater Central Catholic standout met with his parents in the football coaches' offices and signed a contract to play baseball with the Texas Rangers organization. Then he headed back to get ready for his second football practice of the day.

"Since I was little, I wanted to play professional baseball," Cooper, 21, said. "That was the first sport I played. It was kind of what I wanted to do longevity-wise. You can last a lot longer in baseball, for sure. … But the whole decision on playing football and baseball, that's what I wanted to do. I wanted to come back for my senior season, get closer to graduating."

Cooper, 6 feet 3, 206 pounds, spent the spring and summer playing baseball, but the time away hasn't negatively affected his football performance.

"A few guys can do that," coach Urban Meyer said. "There are some guys that could not, but Riley's got that body type. I was worried he'd pull a hamstring or hip flexor or some issue that he'd have with his body, but we were smart. We didn't throw him into the fire right away. He's doing great."

The loss of Percy Harvin and Louis Murphy to the NFL leaves a huge void in the offense: the two combined for 78 receptions, 1,299 yards and 14 receiving touchdowns last season.

Cooper, who started 12 games last season and had 18 catches for 261 yards and three touchdowns (average 14.5 yards per catch), knows it is imperative that he step into a leading role, but he refuses to make too much of his new responsibility.

"I'm not putting extra pressure on myself," he said. "Louis and Percy, they were awesome, great receivers. I love them. We still keep in contact. We're great friends. But I'm not putting that on my shoulders.

"I'm going to go out there and kind of do the same thing I did last year. … I think there's definitely more opportunity out there, so I think my role this year will be expanded."

Cooper's return is a bonus for the Gators not only on the field. He provides a daily example for the young talent of what receivers coach Billy Gonzales is trying to teach.

"I think for the (young receivers) to understand what it's like to play in the Southeastern Conference, they've got to see somebody that's done it before," Gonzales said. "Percy is as gifted as all can be, but look downfield and I bet you five times out of five times you are going to see Riley Cooper down there just mauling somebody, getting after it.

"It's a tribute to him. We always talk about the way you go about blocking as a receiver, your contribution to the team concept. He brings an attitude back to us."

An attitude that has Meyer more impressed than ever.

"Of all the previous camps and previous years he's been a Florida Gator, it's not even close to where he is right now," Meyer said. "And his attitude is tremendous. It's his maturity. He realizes it's last call. And he's really determined to be one of those guys that has to make a choice in both sports.

"I'm really glad he's back. I mean really, really glad."

Antonya English can be reached at english@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3389

University of Florida Gators wide receiver Riley Cooper returns to the team with a professional baseball contract in hand 08/19/09 [Last modified: Wednesday, August 19, 2009 9:32pm]
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