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Graig Cooper should be the boss in the backfield

Graig Cooper wants to be UM's next 1,000-yard rusher. 

That's the goal the guy wearing No. 2 has set for himself this coming season even though it hasn't happened at the University of Miami since 2002 when another guy who wore No. 2, Willis McGahee, finished fourth in the Heisman voting with 1,753 yards (the most ever in a Canes single season).

Graig Cooper has more than 1,500 yards rushing combined as a sophomore and freshman. But will he be allowed to be the primary back for UM in 2009? Back then, when Miami's offense was humming like a choo-choo train, 1,000-yard backs were the norm. From 1995-02, Danyell Ferguson (1,069 in '95), Edgerrin James (1,098 in '97 and 1,416 in '98), James Jackson (1,006 in '00) and Clinton Portis (1,200 in '01) all hit the four digit mark.

So it crazy to think this team -- in the midst of a 19-19 funk over the past three seasons -- can get back to that in Mark Whipple's new offense this fall? Not at all if you ask coach Randy Shannon. He said he wants to go with one primary running back this season. He believes the team has the depth and experience now where if the primary guy goes down, there won't be a major drop off.

But can Cooper (6-0, 205) take the pounding? Can he carry the the load? Will he really be given that load?

Last year, when James missed four games with a high ankle sprain, Cooper proved he could. Against Texas A&M, North Carolina, FSU and UCF, he ran 64 times for 359 yards and three touchdowns (that includes a six carry, 31-yard effort versus FSU when UM threw nearly every down in the second half). Not a bad stretch.

Unfortunately for Cooper, it didn't last. He carried the ball just 19 times combined his next two games against Duke and Wake Forest. Miami pulled off two wins despite it. But the next two games, Cooper got the ball 39 times against Virginia and Virginia Tech and UM picked up arguably its two biggest wins of the season.

Such was the theme for UM all season. When Cooper was handed the ball at least 15 times a game, UM was usually successful and at its best. The Canes went 4-2 in games Cooper had 15 carries (the losses were to UF and North Carolina). 

But when Cooper got the ball a combined just 30 times in UM's last three games, the Canes went 0-3. Before he produced a measly 155 yards in those three games, Cooper might have had a real shot at the 1,000 yard mark had Miami continued to give him the rock. Instead, he shared it with James (who had 29 carries during the stretch) and finished fifth in the ACC in rushing with 841 yards on 171 carries and four touchdowns. Only Boston College freshman Montel Harris (900 yards on 179 carries) produced more rushing yards with fewer touches than Cooper.

Cooper wants to be the man in Miami's backfield this coming season. He just doesn't want to sound greedy. He made every attempt Wednesday to avoid sounding like Keyshawn Johnson.

"We're not worried about trying to be the main guy. We're worried about trying to win, become a team," Cooper said Wednesday. "We let the young guys say some things, correct us. Our pride's not so big that we have to say everything and we have to be the boss. We listen to them too."

But maybe Cooper ought to try being the boss of the backfield. Because when he does touch the ball, good things usually happen. Statistically, nobody at UM has produced more offense than he has the last two seasons. As a freshman and sophomore, he's run for 1,523 yards on 296 career carries. His 29 catches were second on the team last season.

Willis McGahee set UM's single season rushing record in 2002 with 1,753 yards. No running back has run for 1,000 since. When this football program was thriving earlier this decade, one back usually headlined the show. Portis, McGahee and Frank Gore were all talented enough to be the man in Miami's offense. But only one was usually handed the keys. It didn't sever friendships or make things uncomfortable. The trio stayed friends off the field just fine. But they couldn't stand each other on it. Each of them wanted to be the man. It drove them to becoming better football players. Each is now thriving in the NFL.

When I asked Cooper about the NFL Wednesday he told me he wasn't even thinking about it. "I'm not worried about the draft. I got two years left. I'm just worried about getting this program back to where it used to be,"he said.

Team chemistry is important. I'm not knocking it. But part of what made The U special when it was special was how guys saw college as a stepping stone to achieving their NFL dreams. Cooper should embody that. He's been the best offensive player on this team the past two seasons.

Whether you agree with me or not, he's clearly been head and shoulders better than Baby J since arriving. Yet James, who has run for 100 yards in a game just once since he finished with 802 yards (second-most ever for a true freshman), has continued to take opportunities from Cooper. Since 2007, James has 227 carries and 868 yards (3.8 avg). That's only 69 less carries yet an eye-opening 655 fewer yards.

James may have the NFL pedigree, but even scouts believe Cooper will be the better pro, projecting him as a fourth round pick in 2011 and James -- hampered by injuries the past two seasons -- as a fifth or sixth rounder in 2010.

So is Shannon serious when he says there will be one primary back this season? There's only one real way to tell. If Cooper has four numbers and a comma next to his season total in December instead of three.