Receiver finally ‘Cooks’ for Wolf Pack: Joe Santoro says

Joe Santoro

Joe Santoro

Elijah Cooks, the ultimate optimist and cheerleader, expected big things out of Elijah Cooks, the talented sophomore wide receiver, as the Nevada Wolf Pack football season began back in late August.

It didn’t happen right away.

Cooks, who had seven catches and two touchdowns in the Wolf Pack’s Silver and Blue scrimmage last spring, caught just as many passes (two) as he dropped over the first three games this season.

“He did a great job in training camp and in the off-season,” Wolf Pack head coach Jay Norvell said. “He was one of our top offensive players. But at the beginning of the year he just wasn’t as productive as we felt like he could be.”

Cooks was quickly fading into oblivion on a team overstocked with talented and eager wide receivers. The Pack tossed just two passes Cooks’ way (neither one was caught) in the third game of the season against Oregon State.

“At the beginning of the season it was kind of rough,” Cooks said this week as the Wolf Pack prepared to play San Diego State this Saturday night (7:30 p.m.) at Mackay Stadium. “I was a little discouraged at first.”

That discouragement, though, lasted about as long as it takes Cooks to sprint 40 yards into the end zone with the football. There was, after all, a whole lot of season, a whole lot of career left to be played by the former Atascadero (Calif.) High two-sport star.

Cooks turned all that discouragement into determination.

“Then I thought about it, ‘I’m a receiver,’” the highly athletic 6-foot-4, 215-pound Cooks said. ‘“I’m going to make drops every once in a while.’ I just had to get over that and start playing Elijah Cooks’ ball.”

Elijah Cooks ball is explosive. It’s eye-opening. It’s six points waiting to happen from any point on the field. Cooks is the type of athlete who can change the scoreboard with a single bound. All of those big things Cooks expected this season have clearly shown up on the field over the Wolf Pack’s last five games. He has caught 13 passes for five touchdowns over those five games for 216 yards. That’s the type of production Norvell expected out of Cooks all along.

“The last couple weeks he’s really picked it up,” said Norvell, who built a reputation at football factories like Oklahoma and Nebraska as one of the most respected wide receiver whisperers in the nation. “He’s shown up in every game, just making big plays.”

Legendary coach Buddy Ryan once said of future Hall of Fame receiver Cris Carter in a derogatory way, ‘He just catches touchdowns.” When Norvell says of Cooks he “just makes big plays,” there’s nothing derogatory about it. Those words from Norvell, in fact, are the most complimentary he can give a receiver. As far as Norvell is concerned wide receivers have to make big plays for the entire team to flourish.

Well, it just so happens Elijah Cooks ball is the essence of big plays.

Cooks has caught 15 passes this season and 12 of the 15 have either resulted in a touchdown or a first down. Two other passes thrown in Cooks’ direction (both against Boise State) turned into pass interference on the opposition and two more Wolf Pack first downs. He had another 37-yard gain and a first down wiped out by a penalty on a teammate (against Portland State).

It seems everything Cooks touches turns into football gold and results in a new set of downs or a party in the end zone. “My confidence is high right now,” Cooks said.

Cooks showed some of his many talents in the Wolf Pack’s 40-22 victory at Hawaii this past Saturday night. He caught a 29-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Ty Gangi for a 10-7 Wolf Pack lead and later caught a lateral from Gangi and turned it into a 40-yard touchdown run and a 26-14 lead. Those two plays made Cooks the first Pack player since at least 1999 (Wolf Pack records before 2000 aren’t available) to score a pair of touchdowns from 25 yards or longer on a catch and a run in the same game.

“The catch and run on the screen (the 40-yard touchdown) was big time,” said Norvell, who knows a thing or two about big-time plays by wide receivers.

Cooks is also the first Wolf Pack player to catch five touchdown passes in a season on 15 or fewer total catches since Adam Bishop had seven scores on 14 catches in 2007. The Pack still has five games remaining this season (four regular season and a likely bowl game) and Cooks is already just the seventh different Pack receiver to catch five or more touchdowns in a season since the school joined the Mountain West in 2012. And all five of his touchdowns this year have been extremely important, coming with the Pack ahead or behind by 11 points or fewer.

There was a point in this season when Cooks actually did catch just touchdowns. He caught three touchdowns on three consecutive passes over two games against Toledo and Air Force for his first career scores. His first career touchdown came on a 3rd-and-17 pass from the 22-yard line against Toledo in the fourth week of the season. The following week against Air Force he caught a 40-yard touchdown for a 7-0 lead and a 23-yarder for a 28-10 lead in the third quarter that turned out to be the game winner in a 28-25 victory.

Cooks has caught at least one touchdown in four of the last five games. The only game he didn’t find the end zone in that stretch was a 21-3 loss to Fresno State that Gangi missed because of a leg injury.

Gangi returned the next week against Boise State and Cooks returned to the end zone, showing his basketball leaping ability on an 11-yard touchdown grab just 42 seconds before halftime when he out-jumped Boise State’s 5-9 Avery Williams for the ball in the left corner of the end zone.

“Elijah is a guy who has great size,” said Norvell, who likes 5-9 receivers like McLane Mannix and Kaleb Fossum to catch the quick slants over the middle or near the line of scrimmage and taller receivers like Cooks, Romeo Doubs and Brendan O’Leary-Orange to out-fight smaller cornerbacks for the ball on the outside. “He gives us great match-ups in the red zone.”

Cooks’ touchdowns have come from 40 (twice), 29, 23, 22 and 11 yards out. Forget red zone. Anywhere across midfield, it seems, is the Elijah Zone.

Cooks comes by his vast athletic talents honestly. His father Adrian Cooks was a running back for Fresno State, rushing for 348 yards over three (1987-89) seasons. Former Wolf Pack linebacker Roosevelt Cooks (a team-high 98 tackles in 2005) is a cousin and sister Mariah Cooks played four seasons of basketball for Washington State (2012-16), averaging just under 10 points and five rebounds a game for her 127-game career.

Cooks excelled at both football (he started his high school career as a junior varsity quarterback) and basketball in high school. His senior year alone he caught 15 touchdown passes for the football team and averaged 13 points and seven rebounds a game for the basketball team.

“When I got my first (football college scholarship) offer I was at a basketball camp,” said Cooks who got football offers from Wyoming, San Jose State, Hawaii, Fresno State and Nevada. “But when I got the call from the University of Wyoming (his first offer) and they offered me a scholarship, I was like, ‘I’m done with this basketball stuff. I’m going to go football. That’s where I’m going to make it.’”

He wasn’t quite done with all of that basketball stuff.

The Pack men’s basketball team needed a warm and willing body for practice last February so coach Eric Musselman knocked on Norvell’s door and asked for a favor. That was when Pack fans likely noticed Cooks for the first time, as a yelling, screaming, encouraging, towel-waving, teammate-hugging cheerleader on the Pack basketball bench.

Cooks played just four total minutes over four appearances for the basketball team, picking up four fouls and one rebound along the way. But he did receive ample television time during the team’s Sweet 16 run in the NCAA tournament cheering his teammates on. And nobody was a bigger Pack cheerleader. Going to the NCAA tournament with a front row seat, after all, was a lot more exciting than off-season workouts with the football team.

“All they needed was a little more energy on the sideline and I knew I could bring that,” Cooks said.

Cooks, though, saw first hand what made that Pack basketball team so special on and off the court. “I learned a lot from that basketball team,” said Cooks, who exudes confidence and optimism. “They are a real brotherhood and I felt like we (the football team) didn’t have that last year. But this year we do. I learned that from basketball because they are really tight.”

Cooks is also tight with his football teammates, especially the overloaded group of receivers Norvell has collected.

“This receiving corps, we can be great,” Cooks said. “We talked a lot about it before the season started how the outside receivers need to step up and I feel like me and (freshman) Romeo Doubs have stepped up a lot this year.”

The Wolf Pack, at 4-4 overall, has already won more games than it did a year ago when it finished 3-9. And Cooks’ improvement is one of the biggest reasons for the team’s overall improvement, especially on offense.

“I feel like from the beginning of the season to now I’ve grown a lot as a player,” he said.

That hasn’t happened by accident.

The biggest thing Norvell has done in his two seasons at Nevada is to change the culture. Yes, he’s brought in talented young players. But former coach Brian Polian also brought in a ton of talented players, a group that’s now in its senior year this year that includes Malik Reed, Dameon Baber, Asauni Rufus, Korey Rush, Lucas Weber, Sean Krepsz, Ty Gangi and Trae Carter-Wells. Those players are still the heart and soul of this program.

And that’s the way Norvell wanted it. Yes, Norvell is proud of the young talent like Cooks that he has brought to Nevada. His eyes light up and his face bursts into a smile when he talks about them. But he also understood as well as anyone it was Polian’s players who needed to help teach all those young players. The last thing Norvell wanted was a locker room split between Norvell players and Polian players. He told those seniors to be examples to the young players on how to work and prepare. He also told his young players to respect the older players and learn from them.

It’s worked almost to perfection as Polian’s players have been mentors to the young players Norvell and his staff have brought aboard. It all could end up with the team’s most victories (eight or more) since the 13-1 season.

Cooks learned his craft from wide receiver Wyat Demps, a senior who caught 67 passes for 908 yards and 11 touchdowns last year.

“I watched him all last year,” Cooks said. “His route running, the way he caught the ball. I tried to master his craft just to be like mine. He was so precise in his routes, the way he caught the ball. Every time the ball was thrown his way, he got it. That’s how I want to be.”

Cooks is well aware his learning process is far from over, despite his success in recent weeks. His 15 catches this year have come on 33 total targets.

“I can grow a lot,” Cooks said. “I can get my speed up, my route running and my catching ability can be a lot better. I know I’m going to work on that a lot.”

One thing he doesn’t have to work on is his optimism. Cooks fully expects this Wolf Pack season to end with a bowl game and quite possibly the school’s first Mountain West championship.

“I like what we’re doing,” he said with a smile. “I like it a lot. There’s only up from here. We can win out. We can do a lot.”

The Pack will become eligible for its first bowl game with at least two victories over its final four games.

“I’ve thought about it a lot,” said Cooks of a potential bowl appearance. “But I don’t just want two more (victories). I want all four. I know everybody on this team wants all four.”


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