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University of Arizona vs Southern Utah

Arizona receiver Devaughn Cooper makes a diving catch behind the Southern Utah secondary.

Devaughn Cooper declined to discuss the reasons behind his departure from the Arizona football program in the summer of 2017. Cooper was dealing with some “personal issues,” he said this week amid preparations for Friday night’s game at Utah.

It was a rare instance in a seven-minute interview when Cooper wasn’t smiling.

Make no mistake: Whatever happened a year ago is in the past. Cooper returned to the program, he’s contributing to the team and he’s happy to be here.

Cooper’s exuberance was evident after the biggest play of his Wildcats career: a 53-yard reception against Southern Utah on Sept. 15. The redshirt sophomore wide receiver outran two defenders and made a diving catch. Cooper sprung to his feet and made the first-down signal with his right arm.

“I just felt a lot of joy,” Cooper said. “I was just happy to get back on the field and make some plays.”

After missing most of his freshman year because of a hand injury and playing a minimal role last season, Cooper has become a rotation regular.

Seniors Shun Brown, Shawn Poindexter and Tony Ellison get the most targets and receptions. But they’ll be gone after this year. Cooper already has made a positive impression. His six catches for 100 yards are both career highs.

Cooper’s talent never was in question.

A three-star prospect from Narbonne High School in Los Angeles, Cooper had an impressive offer list: Arizona State, Colorado, Michigan, Washington, Washington State and Kansas. He impressed UA coaches and teammates immediately with his speed and shiftiness.

But injuries derailed Cooper’s freshman year. Then came his withdrawal from the program, which came to light in late July of 2017.

A little over two weeks later, then-UA coach Rich Rodriguez — who had left the door open for Cooper’s return — announced that Cooper was back with the program.

Asked why he changed his mind and returned to Tucson, Cooper said: “It was a few things. I kind of really don’t want to get into that right now. When they took me back, I just realized this is where I need to be.”

Cooper had plenty of support in the UA football facility, from Rodriguez and road-trip companion J.J. Taylor to the rest of the Wildcats’ receiving corps.

“That’s what we’re here for,” fellow receiver Cedric Peterson said. “We’re all supposed to be brothers.

“Maybe he didn’t want to talk to a coach about it. Maybe he can’t even talk to his family about it. We’re all here for each other. We’re all here for the same reason. We try to make sure that everybody gets through it.”

Like so many who play this sport, Cooper dealt with his share of adversity and came out stronger on the other side. He only looks back now when he’s tracking the football.

“I learned there’s a lot of other people trying to get where I’m trying to get,” Cooper said. “So just put in that work.

“I love football. It’s just fun. It takes my mind off everything going on outside.”

This article originally ran on tucson.com.

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