NCAA’s active career rushing leader, Marquez Cooper, joins the Aztecs

Marquez Cooper and SDSU QB coach Matt Johnson (right). (Credit: Marquez Cooper)

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Marquez Cooper with SDSU RB coach Darian Hagan (center) on his official visit (Credit: Marquez Cooper)

Madden Cooper is eleven months old. He is the son and inspiration for Ball State transfer RB Marquez Cooper.

“He’s influenced me to be a better man because I’m trying to be the best I can on the field so I can be supportive to him off the field,” Cooper told EVT. “Know how to carry myself when I’m having conversations, just be a good role model for him to follow. It’s time to be serious. I made a serious decision, so I’m trying to be someone he looks up to.”

The younger Cooper has attended two of his father’s games to date, witnessing a pair of dominating performances by his dad and convincing wins by Ball State. He saw his dad’s 177 yards in a 45-7 rout over Indiana State and 140 yards in a 34-3 defeat of Kent State.

Cooper intends to bring his good luck charm to as many contests as possible in 2024. A few of those could happen in San Diego because Cooper committed to playing his final season at SDSU this weekend.

The connection that brought him to The Mesa was head coach Sean Lewis and QB coach Matt Johnson. Cooper transferred to Ball State from Kent State, where Lewis and Johnson mentored him for three years.

“(Johnson) was my running backs coach at Kent State,” Cooper explained. “He was also the offensive coordinator at Kent State last year. So, after the game (in 2023), I waited outside the locker room for him to come out to get a chance to meet my son because of the respect and the relationship that I had with him. It was great for him to meet him. It’s crazy that we’re here (in San Diego) now.”

Their relationship began on the recruiting trail, with Cooper eventually committing to Kent State in April of 2019. After rushing for over 4,500 yards, scoring 98 touchdowns, and winning a state title for Quince Orchard High School in Gaithersburg, Maryland, Cooper enrolled early with the Golden Flash with an eye on starting right away.

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Just 17 years old at the time, Cooper arrived at Kent State in January 2020, only months before the country would be shut down due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Like athletes across the nation, he prepared in isolation to play in a season that might never happen.

In this crucible, Lewis, Johnson, and Cooper formed an uncommon bond. That relationship extended far beyond the gridiron. Cooper described Lewis as a father figure.

“(Lewis is) a phenomenal coach,” Cooper explained. “He brings the same attitude to work every single day, win or lose. He’s trying to win games the best he can. You’ll see him early mornings and late nights in the office. He’s working on scheming it up, drawing it up. They have a plan early to attack the next game, the next week. It’s always that next play, next practice mentality with coach. Being around him every day just let me know that I trust him. I want to play for him again and not risk my last year playing under someone I don’t know.”

Relationships and loyalty are key for Cooper. The talented RB only considered transferring away from Ball State once his position coach Joey Hecklinski, cousin of former SDSU offensive coordinator Jeff Hecklinski, left to become the head coach at Goshen High School in Indiana. Cooper initially chose Kent State because they were the first college to offer him.

Marquez Cooper, proven production

Cooper reached his goal of starting as a true freshman. In a four-game, shortened season, he led the Golden Flash in carries (56) and rushing yards (282) while tying for the team lead with five touchdowns.

His coming out party came against Akron, where he rushed for 107 yards and three scores. It was the first time he reached the century mark. He has done that 16 times since, on his way to rushing for more than 1,000 for three consecutive seasons.

Lewis often says his players are the reason he is in the position he’s in at SDSU. As much as anyone, Lewis owes his ascension in the coaching ranks to Cooper.

(Credit: Marquez Cooper)

“Elusive runner,” Cooper said when asked to describe his game. “Very good in the open field, yet I have a good burst. I could lower my shoulders and get the tough yards if necessary. … I had a 66-yard touchdown against VMI when I was at Kent State. I’ve had a couple of other long runs. I have everything in my toolbox, I feel.”

Among active NCAA players, Cooper’s 3,856 career rushing yards paces the country. He is presently 184th in FBS history. Another 1,000-yard season would move him into the top-35 all time. Cooper needs 1,404 yards to pass Herschel Walker for a spot in the top 15.

High-level production in Lewis’ offense is his obvious fit at SDSU. While the system has evolved in their one year apart, unlike every other running back on the roster, Cooper does not need to imagine what success will look like in the Aztecs’ scheme. He has lived it.

Numerous athletes in SDSU’s RB room have flashed potential. Kenon Christon has had 75 or more rushing or receiving yards eight times in his career. Jaylon Armstead is 159 yards short of 1,000 during his time on The Mesa. Cam Davis and Lucky Sutton have had great games in their young careers.

Given his history of proven success, Cooper enters that mix as the presumed front-runner to start. At a minimum, adding him to the competition should elevate the play of everyone in the room. If someone beats out Cooper this fall, they will have to earn it.

On tape, Cooper displays the elusiveness and vision that has yet to consistently show among SDSU’s current stable of backs. He utilizes this skill with a compact, powerful frame that allows him to gain extra yards after contact despite his short stature. Cooper’s balance also stands out. His potential as a receiver has yet to materialize. He only has 37 receptions in his career, but 19 did come last season at Ball State.

Cooper will turn 22 on May 7. Fifteen days later, Madden turns one. In addition to sharing a birthday month, they also share an NFL dream. Cooper is motivated to earn a professional opportunity as much for his son as for himself.

“I’m not going to take a day for granted,” Cooper said. “I am lucky, and I am blessed. … I get this special opportunity to reunite with my coaches that I started with. I’ve been to three universities, but I’ve been under two coaching staffs. It’s not like I’m a school hopper or nothing like that.”

With the second transfer portal still open, this phase of player acquisition is just beginning. By bringing in the NCAA’s active career rushing leader, the Aztecs are off to a great start.

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