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UM HAS A TALENTED BACKFIELD IN GRAIG COOPER AND JAVARRIS JAMES
DIVING IN: Running back Graig Cooper led the Hurricanes in rushing as a true freshman with 682 yards and five touchdowns in 2007. AL DIAZ / MIAMI HERALD STAFF

His name is Graig Andrew Cooper. That's G-r-a-i-g, not C-r-a-i-g.

"I've got a G in front of my name," said the University of Miami running back. "I guess everyone sees it with a C."

Everyone, including Tennessee coach Phil Fulmer, who on Cooper's recruiting trip to Knoxville called the young tailback "Craig" and his father, "Mr. Cooper" -- even though his dad's name is Tino Thomas.

"I just kind of looked at Graig," said Thomas, the supervisor of a tire company in Memphis. "If you're recruiting someone you need to know what's going on before you put your foot in your mouth."

UM coach Randy Shannon knew his name, and made Cooper his first recruiting visit after former coach Larry Coker was fired. "Coach Shannon didn't promise me nothing," Cooper said, "and that's what I liked about him. I wanted to work for my playing time."

UM's other top running back, now Cooper's closest friend, already was part of the Hurricanes family. In the late 1990s, Javarris James -- aka Baby J -- would show up at cousin Edgerrin James' Miami football practices in a white No. 12 UM jersey with green pants and a plastic UM helmet.

"He was always the mascot when he was too young to do stuff," Edgerrin James, an Arizona Cardinal and the NFL's leading active rusher, once said. "He had on this little fake helmet, fake jersey, you know, everything, and that carried all the way through my UM days. He was always at UM games. And that's why I wanted to be there for him as much as possible, because he was always there for me."

PLAYING HURT: Javarris James ran for 582 yards and four touchdowns last season despite playing through presistent neck pain all season. JARED LAZARUS / MIAMI HERALD STAFF

FRIENDS FIRST

Now, Cooper and Javarris are also there for each other.

When James hurts, Cooper feels pain.

When Cooper scores, James sprints down the sideline to greet him.

"Don't get us wrong, me and Baby J compete," said Cooper, a sophomore. "But it's a brotherhood. Baby J is very loyal and very unselfish. He's just a good person, and I'm the same way. We're connected, good friends who don't let football or anything get between us."

Not even a competition could foster resentment.

Both were crushed after Miami crashed by losing its last four games for its worst season in 30 years. The 2007 debacle, which resulted in a 5-7 record, included a humiliating 48-0 loss to Virginia in the final game at the Orange Bowl. That's the game in which Cooper sprained an ankle while attempting to recover a fumble.

James, a third-year junior from Immokalee, played the entire season with intense neck pain. "It was basically the whole neck," said James, a 6-0 power back who has gone from 208 to 219 pounds in an effort to withstand the physical punishment. "I was spinning around and my helmet came off slightly in the opener against Marshall. I got hit, but they could never figure it out. It started feeling better three weeks after the season was over.

"This is definitely not the way I figured my career would be. Freshman year I didn't even think I'd play and sophomore year I thought would turn out way better than it did. There's no real explaining for last year, except that it brought guys back to reality."

As a freshman, James rushed for 802 yards and four touchdowns, the second most ever for a Miami true freshman, trailing only Clinton Portis' 838. James also caught 17 passes for 200 yards and a touchdown.

Last season, he ran for 582 yards and four touchdowns, adding 100 yards on 14 catches. But he could hardly hold up his head. He started all 12 games (one in the backfield with Cooper), struggling through much of the season.

"He's a very tough kid, a warrior," UM running backs coach Tommie Robinson said of James. 'He understands the game and has a great work ethic. But when your neck is hurting, soon your traps [trapezius muscles] are hurting. I don't know if you guys noticed, but after every series he'd come out and we'd talk on the phone and I always asked, 'How you feeling?' I knew he was hurting, but he still played."

BULKING UP

Cooper, who has gone from 191 to 203 pounds on his 6-0 frame, is the "slasher," Robinson said, "the hard-nosed Memphis kid that won't back down on nobody. He'll lower his shoulder and put some moves on you, too. Our plan is for both of them to play. I'm not taking inexperienced guys into battle."

Cooper finished his first season as UM's top rusher with 682 yards and a 5.5-yard-per-carry average. He also caught 13 passes for 129 yards and a touchdown. His five touchdowns led the team. Cooper's first season represented the third-most rushing yards by a Miami true freshman, behind Portis and Javarris James.

The Hurricanes were 110th nationally in total offense (315 ypg), but 65th in the running game (145).

Expect James and Cooper to be used much more in the passing game, and to take pressure off rookie quarterbacks Robert Marve and Jacory Harris. Shannon said the running backs -- including backups Derron Thomas, Lee Chambers, Shawnbrey Mcneal and Damien Berry -- will each get opportunities.

"We have young quarterbacks," James said. "And the way you get young quarterbacks adjusted is to run the ball."

Last year, Cooper and James had signals to let each other know when the other needed a break. "Coach Shannon saw we had a good connection and knew we were very mature and told us, `You all do it how you all want to do it,"' Cooper said. "He knew we weren't going to be selfish.

"Baby J would just tap his helmet and let me know he's tired. We don't mind sharing the ball with anyone. If we're not a team, we're not anything."

James and Cooper said their goals were to win games, nothing else. They won't talk about being named starters -- or leaving for the NFL after this season. Both could leave early (Cooper because this would be his third year out of high school).

"I feel like I haven't achieved anything to be mentioning leaving," James said. "I haven't even had a 1,000-yard season. My goal is to win as many games as possible. Everything else is irrelevant."

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