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Originally published Tuesday, March 22, 2011 at 10:01 PM

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Washington's talented Deontae Cooper making major progress from knee injury

Freshman running back Deontae Cooper had his season end before it began with a torn ACL last spring. Now he can't wait until he can practice and play without restriction.

Seattle Times staff reporter

UW spring football

What: UW will practice 15 times beginning March 29 and ending April 30 with the annual 11 a.m. Spring Game.

When: Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays. Weekday practices begin at 4 p.m. and Saturdays at 11 a.m., except for April 16 (1 p.m.).

Where: At Husky Stadium. Practices open to the public, but fans need to check in at stadium's northeast corner, near the softball complex.

Source: UW Sports Information

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The star of Washington's spring practice in 2010 is just hoping he can play a supporting role when the Huskies open 2011 spring drills March 29.

"I'll just be doing individual work, running around," says Deontae Cooper. "I probably won't be live yet."

Even that, however, would mark a significant step on the road back for Cooper, a freshman running back who suffered an ACL tear to his left knee last August and missed the 2010 season.

A graduate of Citrus Hill High in Perris, Calif., Cooper enrolled early a year ago after ranking second in rushing in California in 2009 with 2,863 yards.

He earned constant raves throughout spring as he tore through the Huskies' defense again and again.

"He has the ability to go the distance at any time," said Washington coach Steve Sarkisian.

Until suddenly, he could barely take a step.

He'd never missed a game with an injury until a Saturday-night practice last August. After a long run down the sideline, he fell awkwardly when tackled by safety Will Shamburger.

"It very well could not have happened," said running-backs coach Joel Thomas. "You see those kinds of tackles every single day. He just got caught in an awkward situation on the sideline, didn't really have his free arm to protect himself and had a body fall into his legs. It was a good clean football play."

Says Cooper: "Bad luck, I guess, because you look at the film (and) you can't really see it at first. When they said I tore my ACL I said, 'Man, I didn't tear my ACL ... this is probably a hyperextension. I'll be back in two weeks.'"

When the MRI came back, Cooper had a different thought: "How did it do that much damage?"

"I don't really know exactly what happened," he said. "I just know I got tackled from the side and my foot got caught in the turf."

Cooper had been pegged for a significant role with the 2010 Huskies as a backup to tailback Chris Polk and a returner, particularly on kickoffs.

Instead, he spent the season rehabilitating his knee and wondering when he would be back.

When the team was on the road, he usually gathered with other freshman players who were redshirting to watch games.

And by the end of the season, he was able to do individual drills on the side.

"It was tough at the beginning," he said. "But me and coach Sark, when I first got here he said I was going to face adversity, and that was one of the obstacles. It's a long process, and you've got to be patient with it. But as a running back you've got to know patience, so I'm overcoming it now. I've got a year to sit back and watch and get a little experience under my belt.

"You never can predict the future. I was looking forward to the season last year, but things happen. You can't control the hand you are dealt. But you've got to keep going and move forward. I'm ready to move forward."

Sarkisian says Cooper won't be rushed back and likely won't see any contact work this spring. But he will be on the field at times.

"We're going to monitor him closely, want to see him progressively working back into it," Sarkisian said. "He has come a long way in a short amount of time — he looks very good — so we will monitor him."

And if Cooper can eventually regain the form he showed before he was injured, Sarkisian says there is no question he can play a major role on the 2011 Huskies, despite the presence of standout returning starter Chris Polk and talented backup Jesse Callier.

"They are all different, and I think that's what is unique about them in a sense, that we've got three different backs," Sarkisian said, again citing Cooper's potential to turn every run into a long gain. "We're going to need them all."

Cooper yearns for August, when he plans to return to the field without limitations.

"Man, I think about it every day," he said. "Every morning when I wake up it's getting that much closer, and I can't wait. Sitting out a year is a long time, and I just can't wait for an opportunity. I can't wait."

Bob Condotta: 206-515-5699 or bcondotta@seattletimes.com

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