Elijah Cooks was at a basketball camp two months before the start of his senior season of high school when he got a call from the University of Wyoming. A two-sport prep star, Cooks believed his future was in basketball rather than football, but that call from the Cowboys changed his trajectory.
“They offered me a scholarship,” Cooks recalled of that call from Wyoming, the first school to offer him, “and I said, ‘I’m done with this basketball stuff. I’m going football. That’s where I’m going to make it.’”
He didn’t end up at Wyoming, and he actually landed back on the basketball court temporarily – more on that later – but Cooks clearly made the right decision picking the gridiron over the hardwood. After playing minimal snaps as a true freshman wide receiver for Nevada last season, Cooks is having a breakout sophomore season. The SoCal native has six touchdowns in the Wolf Pack's last five games.
“The last couple of weeks he’s really picked it up," Nevada head coach Jay Norvell said. "He’s shown up in every game and is just making big plays. The catch and run on the screen was big time this last game.
"Elijah is a guy who has great size, he’s 6-4, gives us great matchups in the red zone and we just want him to continue to build on his performance and be a matchup problem down the stretch.”
Cooks had excellent spring and fall camps and looked poised to star at the start of this season. It didn’t play out that way. The 6-foot-4, 215-pounder from Atascadero, Calif., had just three catches in Nevada’s first four games. His drops out-numbered his catches. But Cooks has come on of late.
“I was a little discouraged at first and then I thought about it and said, ‘I’m a receiver. I’m going to make drops every once in a while,’” he said. “I started to get over that and started playing Elijah Cooks ball.”
Elijah Cooks Ball means getting the pigskin into the end zone. Cooks has touched the ball just 16 times this season, but he’s scored on six of those plays and is averaging 18.2 yards per touch. With Nevada being strong in the slot with McLane Mannix and Kaleb Fossum – they’ve combined for 87 catches for 1,208 yards and six scores – the Wolf Pack needed some explosion from its outside receivers. The combo of Cooks and true freshman Romeo Doubs, who has 23 catches for 238 yards, has provided that.
“He had a really good spring and we were kind of counting on him to be that guy earlier in the season,” outside receivers coach Eric Scott said. “Once it’s lights, camera, action, it takes a little while to get going. A lot of it is he wasn’t trusting his ability early. The ability to run and just go. He was adding a few things to his trick bag that wasn’t good. It was, ‘Just go back to being this guy.’ He’s getting it now.”
Ironically, it was the sport he gave up – basketball – that helped jump-start his success in football. With the Wolf Pack basketball team down in numbers last season, coach Eric Musselman asked his football counterpart, Norvell, if he could borrow a player for the end of the season. Norvell offered Cooks, who averaged 12.9 points, 7.1 rebounds, 4.7 assists, two blocks and 1.9 steals per game during his senior season of high school. Cooks' older sister, Mariah, also was a standout basketball player for Washington State from 2012-16.
Scott said his pupil’s experience with Nevada basketball, which went to the Sweet 16 last year, got Cooks into better condition and made him more athletic. Cooks is down 20 pounds from last year.
“I think it helped him out because it kept him in great shape,” Scott said. “It kept him very limber and loose and he came back a lot more flexible than he left. I think that helped him drop a lot of weight.”
Cooks echoed those thoughts and said his experience with Nevada basketball was a big positive.
“I learned a lot from that basketball team,” he said. “They’re a real brotherhood, and I felt like we didn’t have that last year but this year we do. I learned that from watching basketball. They’re really tight.”
Cooks said Nevada football has added that bond, although his relationship with one teammate, running back Toa Taua, dates back to the sixth grade. Cooks was a linebacker back then and admits he was scared of Taua when they were younger because of how aggressive Taua ran. Taua said he projected future success for Cooks, too, although he adds Cooks wasn’t the most athletic looking back in the day.
“Fat,” Taua said when asked what he remembered about a young Cooks. “He was a little fat, chubby boy. Didn’t really look like the football kind of guy, at least on the outside catching balls. But he has always been the same character his whole life, goofy, funny, always smiling. He’s never really changed up. Athletic-wise, he’s just been that guy. Even when he was that chubby fat kid he somehow got the job done. It may have not looked like it, but he was always very athletic so I’m definitely not surprised.”
Taua credited Cooks’ emergence with helping the Wolf Pack running game, which is coming off a 220-yard performance in last week’s win over Hawaii (Cooks also scored twice in the victory).
“He brings a lot more to the table than just catching the ball,” Taua said. “He actually opens up the run game a lot more. When he’s a threat outside, they bring the safety over the top and they’re not bringing the safety down, that opens it up for me and the other running backs and he makes our job a lot easier.”
That big-play production was missing early this year as Nevada looked to replace Wyatt Demps, who caught 67 passes for 908 yards and 11 touchdowns in 2017. Cooks was Demps’ understudy last season and took note of his route running, the way he caught the ball and other little nuances he could soak up. An early-season broken foot sabotaged Cooks’ true freshman season – he caught just two passes for 23 yards – but he’s starting to live up to the potential Nevada saw when recruiting him.
“We needed a bigger body and an athlete and we loved the fact he was a two-sport athlete, playing both basketball and football,” Scott said. “As a receiver, he was really good at going up for the deep balls and jump balls, which was big because in this conference you’re looking at most defensive backs being 5-9, 5-10, so he has that built-in advantage that is big in one-on-ones and in the red zone.”
Sports columnist Chris Murray provides insight on Northern Nevada sports. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @MurrayNSN.