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July 7, 2007

Hanging with Cooper

USC's success on the recruiting trail has stocked the roster with four and five-star prospects fighting for playing time. The popular assumption is that walk-on players are far removed from ever see the field.

However, as Trojan fans can attest, USC's reign over the PAC-10 would't be possible without contributions from former walk-ons like Collin Ashton, Mario Danelo and Mike Brittingham.

Punter Greg Woidneck is a current walk-on starter, and Cooper Stephenson did come out of spring ball No. 2 on the fullback depth chart.

Coming out of Torrey Pines High School, Stephenson was a first-team all-conference linebacker that was looking forward to becoming a Wolverine.

"My dad went to Michigan and played at Michigan, so I was brought up a big Michigan fan," Stephenson said. "Michigan was the school I told everyone I wanted to go to when I was younger.

"Going into my junior year, I went to their summer camp as a linebacker and I did pretty well there. I enjoyed Michigan and I thought I would end up going there."

During Stephenson's senior year, no major D-I programs offered him a scholarship. Michigan did, however, offer him preferred walk-on status. He was also recruited by several Ivy League and D-III schools.

Then a new option presented itself to Stephenson.

"By the end of my senior year I had sent in my highlight tape to USC and they were interested in me," he explained. "After a while they also offered me the same as Michigan, the preferred walk-on status."

With his childhood ties to Michigan, Stephenson was at a crossroads. But with a sister attending USC, the school's location and continuing football success beckoned.

"I couldn't pass up on Southern Cal," he said.

When he arrived at USC Stephenson assumed he would be playing linebacker, but the coaches had other plans in mind.

"When I was recruited I thought I was going to be a linebacker at USC, but when I showed up to camp Brennan Carroll told me I was going to be playing tight end."

Stephenson played tight end in high school and spent all of last season with the tight ends for the Trojans.

In spring 2006, with the depth chart at fullbacks thin, the coaches asked Cooper to make the move and learn a new position.

"I was running fullback for pretty much all of spring ball."

When it comes to summer workouts, scholarship or no scholarship, all of the players attend and work their tails off.

"All of the returning guys have been working really hard in the weight room," Stephenson said. "Coach Carlisle is really stepping up the conditioning and strength workouts.

"From the passing side of it we have been throwing the ball around with all the freshmen coming in. They are all looking really, really good. I think this could be one of the best recruiting classes that we have had."

All of the freshmen have been impressive, but one guy in particular stood out to Stephenson.

"People say that Joe McKnight could be the next Reggie Bush. He is so shifty and so quick, I wouldn't be surprised if he got a lot of playing time next year."

McKnight has some major competition at tailback, but there is still a severe lack of depth at the fullback spot.

In fact after Stanley Havili, Stephenson was listed as second on the depth chart coming out of spring ball.

"It was kind of a shock to me at first but I am getting used to it. I am enjoying it right now and I hope it will last."

To keep that spot Stephenson will have to fend off incoming freshmen Jordan Campbell and follow the advice of the coaches.

"My big thing right now is I need to gain some weight," he explained. "I am close to 220 (pounds) and they want me to be 225 or 230.

"I also need to keep my head up when I block so I make sure I am hitting them to the right side and opening holes for the backs."

Learning the plays is another challenge, since he had only three weeks during spring ball to get everything down.

He did have some help, however, with the penciled in starter, Havili.

"Me and Stanley are really close. He will help me out when I have a question and even I can help him out on some things."

One game this season that should have a little special meaning for Stephenson is the Stanford contest.

The new head coach on The Farm is Jim Harbaugh, a Michigan alumnus who was hanging around the Wolverines as a kid when Cooper's father Curt was playing for Michigan.

The senior Stephenson and Harbaugh have kept in touch over the years, and Harbaugh even recruited Cooper while he was the head coach at the University of San Diego.

"I took an official visit to USD with my high school teammate and we were down in Pacific Beach eating lunch," Cooper explained. "We were kind of on our own for four hours or so and we were supposed to meet the group to get a ride back to campus.

"But when we showed up, they were all gone, so they pretty much left us on our visit.

"So we were like, OK, we are not coming here."

Even though he was left to find his own ride back, Stephenson took the failed visit in stride.

"I don't have any hard feelings against him, me and Harbaugh are totally cool."

For the inside scoop on what is going on during summer workouts including live updates, make sure you read The Peristyle!

If you are not a subscriber, you can click here to subscribe now and get a 7-day free trial and get all the inside info being talked about on The Peristyle.

Stay tuned to USCFootball.com for more photos, videos and interviews from all of the offseason summer workouts.

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