As H-back, 'Skins' Cooley moves forward

Rookie to fill crucial spot in Gibbs' offense, blending roles of fullback, tight end

September 10, 2004|By Jeff Barker | Jeff Barker,SUN STAFF

ASHBURN, Va. - Chris Cooley is eager and as unassuming as a man can be when he's 6 feet 3, 265 pounds and has just been asked to start his first NFL game for a Hall of Fame coach at a position the coach helped make famous.

The Washington Redskins' rookie H-back replies, "Oh, it feels amazing," when asked about the team's plans to make him a significant part of the offense Sunday against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in coach Joe Gibbs' return to football after an 11-year hiatus.

Cooley's position is a hybrid fullback-tight end. Gibbs popularized the H-back in the '80s with such players as Clint Didier and Rick "Doc" Walker. The idea was to replace the fullback with a larger blocker.

"If you really study offenses, how many times does that fullback carry the ball? If they get it twice a game, that's a lot," said Rennie Simmons, Gibbs' tight ends coach in the '80s and again today. "So they're really a blocker and all we've done is declared that we don't have two backs. We've got another blocker in there instead."

The tricky part for defenses is that the H-back, who frequently goes in motion, doubles as a pass receiver. Didier caught 129 passes and scored 19 touchdowns in six years with Washington as an H-back and tight end.

Cooley, 22, is too young to remember much about Didier. "I think I was like 10 when he [Gibbs] was last coaching," the rookie said. "Some of that stuff I really would like to watch just to see how those guys were doing it."

Mostly, the Utah State alumnus has learned by repetition.

"Chris is a smart guy," said tight end Robert Royal. "The H-back is probably one of the toughest positions on the team. You have to learn receiver, fullback and also tight end."

Cooley's callowness and puppy-dog enthusiasm mask his size and toughness, two traits that helped vault him ahead of several veterans in the H-back competition.

It didn't escape Gibbs that Cooley took a pass in the last preseason game against the Atlanta Falcons and delivered a punishing blow to safety Cory Hall as he turned to drive up the field. The hit elicited an "ooooh" from the FedEx Field crowd.

"I think he's kind of proven that he's a pretty good runner when he catches the ball," Gibbs said. "He bounces off people and makes things happen."

Cooley caught five passes for 69 yards during the preseason. His climb up the depth chart was helped by minor injuries to H-backs Mike Sellers and Brian Kozlowski. All three are expected to get playing time during the season.

"Chris was the only one that made it through the whole thing [training camp] without - knock on wood - getting hurt," Simmons said.

Cooley didn't know for certain he was starting until he heard from, of all people, his mother.

"We went through practice last week and I was pretty much in with the first team the whole week. We went into the [final] preseason game and they said, `Well, you'll be in the first series at H,' " Cooley said.

But there was nothing official until several days later when, he said, "I [got] an e-mail from my mom that said there's an article that says Coach Gibbs has announced I'm starting. And I'm like, `Awesome.' "

If his veteran teammates don't outwardly share his enthusiasm, that's because of an NFL culture that ranks rookies below most everybody else.

"He hasn't done anything yet," quarterback Mark Brunell said. "He's had a good preseason. He's a good player."

Guard Randy Thomas was more blunt. "I don't worry about no rookies," he said with a smile.

The Redskins traded up in the third round of April's draft to get Cooley, whom they regarded as a good H-back fit. He led the nation's tight ends in receptions as a senior with 62 catches for 732 yards and six touchdowns.

But Logan, Utah, is a long way from FedEx Field. This week, a reporter told Cooley he may end up blocking linebacker Simeon Rice, who had four sacks in Tampa Bay's 35-13 rout of the Redskins last season.

Cooley just laughed and said he'd do the best he could.

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