In college football, unlike in the NFL, it's not uncommon for the best wide receiver in the league—statistically speaking—to be a relative no-name from a smaller program.
In fact, it's rather normal. Every year between 2008 and 2011, an anonymous receiver led the country in either catches, yards, touchdowns or some combination of the three:
This year appears to be the best of both worlds. America's best wide receiver does come from a BCS league—his team was even ranked in Week 1—but for whatever reason, he's yet to break out on a national stage.
Ladies and gentlemen, I give you Brandin Cooks.
As a Prospect
Oregon State is far from a recruiting powerhouse, losing the top echelon of recruits to established West Coast programs like USC and Oregon.
So it comes as little surprise that Cooks, part of the 2011 recruiting class, received just three stars from 247Sports' composite and ranked No. 390 in America (50th among receivers).
Part of that had to do with his size. Listed at just 5'10'', 160 pounds, it was hard to be overly bullish about Cooks' next-level prospects—even though his tape screamed otherwise:
2011 was also a very strong class of wide receivers.
In hindsight, Cooks obviously should have ranked higher than 50th. But there's no shame in grading out behind current stars like:
- Jarvis Landry (LSU)
- Sammy Watkins (Clemson)
- Kasen Williams (Washington)
- Jaxon Shipley (Texas)
- Davaris Daniels (Notre Dame)
- Rashad Greene (Florida State)
- Donte Moncrief (Ole Miss)
- Odell Beckham (LSU)
- Ty Montgomery (Stanford)
- DeVante Parker (Louisville)
- Devin Smith (Ohio State)
Plus, despite his physical limitations, Cooks' agility and skill set made him popular among red-chip West Coast schools. Along with Oregon State, he received offers from Arizona, Boise State, Cal, Nevada, UCLA, UNLV, Utah, Washington and Washington State.
But still, with USC and Oregon missing patently from that list, it's not hard to understand the chip-on-his-shoulder attitude that Cooks often plays with.
He still feels like he's proving himself.
Steady Improvement in Corvallis
After six weeks and five games, Cooks leads the nation with 52 receptions, 807 yards and nine touchdown catches.
The triple crown of receiving is a rare feat, but if Oregon State's defense continues to struggle, forcing the Beavers to stay aggressive for 60 minutes each game, there's no reason Cooks can't finish the year atop all three categories.
His progression from undersized, undervalued, 3-star recruit to college football superstar has been steady. He went from modest contributing freshman to big-play sophomore to unguardable junior in three short years:
Nothing from 2013 sticks out more than the increased touchdown catches. As a sophomore, Cooks was a threat between the 20s but ceded red-zone targets to All-Pac-12 teammate Markus Wheaton, who finished third in the conference with 11 TD grabs.
This year, Cooks has become the best red-zone finisher in the country. Seven of his nine touchdowns grabs have come from inside the 20, five have come from inside the 10, and other than a 55-yarder against Utah, all have come from inside the 25.
For that, Cooks owes a great debt of gratitude to Wheaton, who mentored him through his first two years in Corvallis.
A third-round pick of the Pittsburgh Steelers, Wheaton might have been the best slot-receiver prospect in April's NFL draft, and he has a promising pro career ahead of him.
He helped teach Cooks the tricks of his trade—how to get open in the red zone, how to run pristine routes, how to use a smaller, slighter frame to his advantage instead of trying to overcompensate for it.
He helped make Cooks the receiver he is today.
Beating You Both Ways
What makes Cooks so scary is his ability to burn you short or deep. His improved route tree makes him a threat to dissect you underneath—see the 10.4 catches per game—but his quick release and straight-line speed allows him to take the top off of a defense.
He can also take short patterns for big gains, using his blockers well and taking good angles through the holes they provide. See, for example, this screen pass he took 55 yards for a touchdown against Utah:
Cooks takes the dump off and immediately turns his head down field. Instead of following his assigned blocker down the right flank, he notices open space across the middle of the field and decides to traverse:
When he does, he's burdened only by a safety chasing him down. But he takes a much better angle to the sideline, allowing him to get around the edge and score:
The natural reaction to this run-after-catch ability is simple: Don't let him catch the ball. The best way to stop gains like that is to press up on Cooks and shadow him around the line of scrimmage.
But earlier in that same game, Cooks had already made Utah pay for trying to jam him at the line. When teams try to press him, Cooks can beat them over the top:
That's the beauty of Cooks' game: Defenders trying to guard him are damned if they do and damned if they don't.
He puts the "Catch" in Catch-22, leaving cornerbacks and safeties in lose-lose situations all over the field. He forces opposing coordinators to pick their poison, choosing the lesser of two evils and deciding not if but how Cooks is going to beat them.
There are loads of great receivers in college football right now, many of whom pose the same dilemma to opposing coaches.
But no one is doing it at a higher level than Cooks is.