The world of college football recruiting is a lot like high school, which is fitting given the players involved.
There are cliques and crews: Five-star players are the big men on campus. Four-star players are the popular kids. Two-star players fade into the background, invisible until they do something to stand out.
The rankings, however, eventually fade. College becomes, for many, a chance to reinvent themselves.
Last week, a pint-sized running back juked a defender to his knees. Later, he plunged toward a larger defender, planted his left foot and quickly spun in the other direction as one player — and then another — flew past him.
J.J. Taylor was the talk of Tucson after his 168-yard, one-touchdown performance in a 47-28 win over Hawaii.
One drive after Taylor’s juke, an Arizona defender rushed the quarterback, threw his hands in the air and tipped a pass that the Wildcats intercepted.
Safety Tristan Cooper is already an emerging talent on the Wildcats’ defense.
Cooper and Taylor play on opposite sides of the ball, but they’re be grouped together now. Both true freshmen are expected to play key roles Saturday, when the Wildcats take on No. 9 Washington in the teams’ Pac-12 opener.
One was overlooked because of where he came from; the other was passed over because he didn’t look the part.
This is their story.
Texas is talent-rich for college football coaches, with nearly 400 recruits committing to play collegiately this year alone.
El Paso is barely a blip on the radar, however, which is remarkable considering it’s the state’s sixth-largest city. Sports talk there centers more on UTEP’s men’s basketball team or the Triple-A Chihuahuas, the reigning Pacific Coast League champions.
The city produced just seven Division I football players this year. Six went to UTEP. Cooper is the seventh.
“We have the athletes,” Cooper said. “Just nobody wants to come recruit there.”
Jeff Woodruff, who coached Cooper at Andress High School, concedes that the city “isn’t a big stop for everybody on the recruiting trail.”
Luckily, Woodruff is well-traveled enough to know a Division I player when he sees him. He was, after all, a UA running backs coach in the late 1990s. Before that, he served as a longtime assistant for Washington coach Don James.
Cooper “has the motor, he’s got the size, he’s got that burst, ability to run and hit,” Woodruff said. “I think I knew he could play at a high level.”
America’s college coaches needed more convincing. As recently as January, Cooper held offers from just two schools, UTEP and Texas State.
Woodruff stepped in: The former Wildcats assistant called UA coach Rich Rodriguez, alerted him to Cooper and sent him the game film. Rodriguez loved how Cooper hit and the mature way he carried himself on the field.
“Within 20 minutes, he called back and said, ‘we want him,’” Woodruff said.
Arizona offered a scholarship, and the floodgates soon opened. New Mexico and New Mexico State both wanted Cooper; so did a pair of Power 5 conference schools, Purdue and Texas Tech.
Cooper moved from a no-star recruit to a two-star rating. Coincidence? Probably not.
“I honestly didn’t want the stars at all,” Cooper said. “At first, I was nothing. I was like, ‘Don’t boost me up just because I’m getting D-I offers.’ That’s how I felt. Let me earn it first. Let me earn it in college, then you can put the stars.”
Cooper researched each of the programs, scanning depth charts for a chance to play right away. He watched tape of former UA safety Will Parks — “I saw that dude’s highlights and thought ‘dang, that’s the place,’ ” he said — visited campus, and he was sold. Cooper wanted to be a Wildcat.
Cooper started at the “Spur” safety position last week. His 14 tackles this season rank fourth on the team.
“They say it’s the 1 percent that goes to the NFL. Well, it’s the 1 percent that gets out of El Paso. You don’t leave El Paso,” Cooper said. “I’m not going to say I was overlooked … all I needed was one offer. One offer, then I know they’re all gonna start coming. Once Illinois offered, that’s when Arizona offered.
“I already knew Arizona was the right fit.”
Ask Rodriguez about the best high school game film he’s ever seen, and he’ll tell you about Noel Devine.
Devine was a 5-foot-8-inch running back with a knack for making players miss. Rodriguez fondly recalled this week how Devine, whom he successfully recruited to West Virginia, could juke three or four defenders in a 2-yard box.
“He was that quick, and that explosive,” Rodriguez said.
Calvin Magee, Arizona’s co-offensive coordinator and running back’s coach, watched a highlight tape last year and saw some similarities.
This running back would charge into a horde of defenders then bounce to the outside and run for a long touchdown. He’d break tackles, stiff-arm larger defenders and juke others to their knees.
Taylor was incredible. And Magee didn’t care that the Corona (California) Centennial High School stood just 5-6.
“When I met him in person, I said ‘boy, he’s kind of tiny,’ ” Magee said. “But when I watched him practice, I said, ‘I don’t care.’”
Taylor went viral following Saturday’s win over Hawaii, his slow-motion spin and juke of two defenders gaining countless retweets and page views.
Washington’s defensive staff noticed.
“I think he’s frickin’ awesome,” defensive coordinator Peter Kwiatkowski told the Seattle Times.
Back in Corona, Matt Logan smiled. Taylor’s high school coach had seen some of those moves before.
“It’s funny: people always talk about a play and say, ‘I can’t believe he made that play in a game,’” Logan said. “It wasn’t a big deal for us because he (made) five or six of those every practice.”
Taylor rushed for 2,149 yards and 41 touchdowns at Centennial, a power program that produced former UA quarterback Matt Scott and former Arizona State defensive lineman Will Sutton. Taylor contributed on special teams, and even played some defensive end. The Scout.com recruiting service listed Taylor as a three-star recruit, a solid rating that would likely have been higher had he been, well, taller.
Montana State, Weber State, Ohio, Sacramento State and Nevada offered scholarships. Washington State coach Mike Leach, who loves “gadget” players, did, too.
Taylor was still undecided as of summer of 2015. A phone call changed all that. Taylor was awakened from sleep by Rodriguez, who had a scholarship offer ready.
“He offered me, and I was like … ‘Wait,’” Taylor said. “I had to wake up. I thought I was dreaming.”
Things have only gotten better for Taylor. The freshman enters Saturday’s game as the UA’s presumptive starter at running back. Nick Wilson is questionable to play with an ankle injury, and Orlando Bradford — who opened the season as his backup — is off the team after being arrested last week.
Taylor’s time is, suddenly, now.
“I think people worried about his size but he’s a football player. Size didn’t matter,” Magee said. “I don’t know why he did, but I’m glad he chose us.”