QB connections for Rams’ Cooper Kupp started at Eastern Washington with SoCal star
By 2012, as Eastern Washington University built one of the NCAA’s Football Championship Subdivision’s top programs behind an explosive offense, some of its players were so obsessed with improvement that a custodian, with the blessing of the Eagles’ coach, Beau Baldwin, began letting players into the football offices after practice hours. Among those who tagged along for extra film or weights was a freshman receiver named Cooper Kupp.
The upperclassmen eventually graduated. But Kupp and the propped-open doors remained.
“Ultimately, I think somehow or another a key was delivered,” Baldwin, now the coach at Cal Poly, said this week. “Those guys had 24-hour access.”
It explained why, during the 2013 and 2014 seasons in Cheney, Wash., a city of 12,000 tucked in rolling wheat fields south of Spokane, Eagles quarterback Vernon Adams Jr. received texts from Kupp at odd hours asking him to meet up at the team’s facility.
“It’d be a Sunday, it’d be a late night, and early morning,” Adams said. “ ‘C’mon, let’s go.’ We would go watch film together.”
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Few positions in sports need be more aligned than quarterback and receiver, where success hinges on timing, trust and precious seconds hardwired through hours of repetitions. And in the experience of Adams, a Mission Hills Bishop Alemany High graduate who later starred at Oregon and has played in the Canadian Football League since 2016, no other receiver he has known has been as serious as Kupp in wanting to be on the same page as his QB.
After being drafted by the Rams in the third round of the 2017 NFL draft, Kupp spent his first few weeks as a professional living with then-Rams quarterback Jared Goff. Goff set up a projector in a spare room to teach Kupp the offense.
When Goff woke up, he’d find the rookie receiver’s scribbled thoughts all over a whiteboard, he told the NFL Network in 2017. This season, his first catching passes from Matthew Stafford, Kupp has taken to eating breakfast and talking football with his new quarterback.
Kupp’s partnership with Goff yielded a Pro Bowl selection and a contract extension worth $35 million guaranteed. His union with Stafford has led Kupp to become only the fourth player to lead the league in receptions, yardage and touchdowns in the same season, production that has powered the Rams to Super Bowl LVI on Feb. 13 against Cincinnati, in SoFi Stadium.
Yet before his connections with Los Angeles quarterbacks moved him up the payroll and into the record books as a pro, it was his college connection with Adams, his first L.A. quarterback, that put Kupp on the radar of the league he now dominates. Their two-season partnership featured more than 3,000 receiving yards, tennis-ball machines, two favorite plays and one wedding party.
When they met, they were a study in opposites. Kupp was a white receiver from Yakima who maintained almost a monk’s existence when it came to the obsessive study of football. Adams was a Black quarterback who said he experienced culture shock seeing horses and cows upon arriving in Cheney, and acknowledged he was “always banking on my athletic ability.” When Adams invited Kupp to recruiting parties, Kupp would appear, then quickly duck out.
But they attended the same Spokane church. Over discussions of football, games of table tennis and film sessions, they grew close enough that Adams was a groomsman in Kupp’s 2015 wedding. Each rubbed off on the other. In 2020, their families nearly went on a Hawaiian vacation together before the pandemic ended those plans.
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“Shoot, God and football, how could you get any closer than that?” Adams said. “That’s just what it was. We hung out with two different type of crowds as well, but that’s my bro.
“At the end of the day we knew, shoot, we could call each other for anything. We hit up each other randomly like, ‘Hey, I’ll meet you at the locker room and let’s go watch some film.’ It was mainly him hitting me up. He had that quarterback mentality.”
For all of their apparent differences, Kupp and Adams both were difference-makers and All-Americans through a shared motivation to upend expectations of how good they could become. Even though his lineage included a grandfather, Jake, and father, Craig, who played in the NFL, Kupp was recruited only by Idaho State and Eastern Washington.
Adams and coaches often found Kupp in the football facility, alone, loading tennis balls into a machine that ricocheted them off of walls at all angles, providing another opportunity for reps. He also was known to watch film with his then-girlfriend, and now wife, Anna.
“I never heard him talk about another player... like he did Kupp all the time.”
— Dean Herrington, who coached Vernon Adams at Alemany High, on the quarterback’s impressions of Cooper Kupp
“He said it to me one time, ‘You know coach, there’s only 24 hours in a day, so I only have time to do the things that are truly important to me,’ ” Baldwin said.
Dave Cook, the school’s sports information director for 31 years, said Kupp would pepper him with questions about the football program’s history, then pivot to asking how Cook did his job.
“You could tell that was just part of who he was and how he wanted to build a knowledge base of everything,” Cook said.
Only Eastern Washington and Portland State showed serious interest in Adams, who was knocked for his less-than-6-foot stature, even after passing for 296 yards and rushing for 147 more in his final high school game in 2010, against Anaheim Servite in the Pac-5 Division quarterfinals.
The lack of attention was Eastern Washington’s, and Kupp’s, gain.
“I remember Vernon telling me that, man, we got this guy out here named Cooper Kupp that’s amazing, I’ve never seen a guy work as hard as this guy,” said Dean Herrington, who coached Adams at Alemany. “He’s always very supportive of his teammates. But I never heard him talk about another player like this, like he did Kupp all the time.”
In hindsight, Kupp’s first college game was a warning shot. He caught five passes for 119 yards, including touchdowns of 31 and 48 yards from Adams, in Eastern Washington’s 49-46 win at 25th-ranked Oregon State on Aug. 31, 2013. Kupp’s father played quarterback for Beavers coach Mike Riley in the former World League in the early 1990s, but that connection wasn’t going through Riley’s mind midgame.
The coach said he was thinking about how Adams, whom the Oregon State staff had had some light contact with in high school, had first slipped out of OSU’s grasp both on the recruiting trail and subsequently all over the field. He accounted for 518 yards of offense.
“We could not pull his flag, we could not stop him from throwing,” Riley recalled. “That’s one that got away.”
Kupp’s first touchdown came off a deep post route Eastern Washington dubbed “slash.”
“I checked ‘slash,’ runs it, boom, spins out on the corner, runs up the sideline, scores a TD, that’s his first touchdown of his college career,” Adams said. “And that’s from there on I’m like, ‘Oh we got us a dude!’ ”
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Slash joined a fade route Kupp ran from the slot position as plays Adams and Baldwin knew they could run for Kupp, even as a check-down, and reliably produce heaps of yardage.
Kupp was named the FCS freshman of the year by four media outlets in 2013 and the top receiver by another. When he couldn’t accept the Jerry Rice Award that year, his father attended the ceremony in his place, and Cook arranged a call between the award’s namesake and the freshman wideout.
“I remember Craig actually putting on Jerry Rice’s Super Bowl ring,” Cook said. “Just funny how nine years later he could be wearing his own son’s ring.”
That season, Adams was the runner-up for the Walter Payton Award, given to the top FCS player. (He finished second in 2014, as well.) Adams was beaten out by future 49ers quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo, whose fourth-quarter interception Sunday sealed the Rams’ second Super Bowl appearance in four seasons.
In their two seasons overlapping in Cheney, Adams accounted for 9,367 yards from scrimmage and 100 touchdowns while Kupp compiled 197 receptions for 3,122 yards and 37 touchdowns.
“Coop’s so humble, as much as VA says you know, Coop was the best receiver he ever played with and was fortunate, Coop would sit here and tell you I was really lucky in my first two years to have a QB like Vernon,” said Baldwin, who called Adams the opposite of a “driving-range quarterback” — the type of player who shines in practice but can’t replicate it in a game.
“I mean, he practiced well, and he impressed you, but he was at his very best when the lights came on,” Baldwin said. “So even though they might have had different paths a little bit during their time, they still both absolutely respected how ultra competitive each of them were.”
In four games against Pac-12 schools in Kupp’s four college seasons, he caught 40 passes for 716 yards and 11 touchdowns and the Eagles went 2-2, burnishing his reputation as a dependable player in high-pressure settings.
“Cooper was just special from day one,” said an NFL scout who evaluates West Coast prospects and was not authorized to speak publicly. “Every time he played a Pac-12 opponent, he dominated. He was the best player on the field.”
The Rams are known for making big-time acquisitions, but it was a series of less-newsworthy moves that helped them earn a spot in Super Bowl LVI.
Still, in 2017, the scout said he didn’t know where to put Kupp in mock drafts. Anything between the second and seventh felt possible because, though Kupp’s technical precision was remarkable, he wasn’t a dominating physical presence at 6-2. The scout and Baldwin both believed Kupp would get on the field immediately in the NFL, but becoming the first receiver with 2,000 yards combined in the regular season and playoffs? That has been a surprise.
Adams swears it is not to him.
“It’s awesome, and it’s deserving,” Adams said. “None of this shocks me.”
He saw precedent. As Adams stepped into a starting role in 2012, watching as Kupp dominated on scout team as a redshirt, the quarterback learned something that has held true on Kupp’s rise to stardom in, of all places, Adams’ Southern California home.
Give Kupp the slightest opening — a door left ajar, a blown coverage — and he will take advantage.
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