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Southeastern Louisiana running back Marcus Cooper looks to shake some Incarnate Word tacklers in the second half on Oct. 7 at Strawberry Stadium in Hammond. 

CONTRIBUTED PHOTO

HAMMOND — Everything about Marcus Cooper’s rise on Southeastern Louisiana’s depth chart defies the typical playbook for a standout running back.

Cooper is a freshman and a walk-on, and he’s listed as 5-foot-8 and 160 pounds on the Lions’ roster. Southeastern entered the season with three experienced tailbacks ahead of him in Julius Maracalin, Eugene Bethea and Darren Johnson.

But Cooper isn’t worried about his size or his stature. All he cares about is how hard he works on the field.

“I just play my game," he said. "I’ve been used to everybody being bigger than me all my life. That doesn’t mean anything. That doesn’t change anything at all. I’m just a competitor.”

Cooper’s competitive zeal, mixed with a healthy dose of speed and an eagerness to learn, have vaulted him from being buried in the depth chart to becoming a top threat for the Lions’ rushing attack, which is averaging a Southland Conference-best 291.5 yards per game.

“He’s been a bright spot, obviously,” Southeastern coach Ron Roberts said. “Big bright spot there, especially for him being a freshman coming in and doing these things early. We’re excited about him.”

Cooper, who's from Rice Consolidated High School in Altair, Texas, isn’t the starter for Southeastern. That title belongs to Johnson, who leads the Lions with 381 rushing yards and has four touchdowns.

But Cooper is second on the team with 336 yards, and he’s averaging an eye-popping 11.2 yards per carry. He has led the Lions in rushing in each of the past two games, racking up 140 yards against Northwestern State and 148 yards versus Incarnate Word.

Roberts said Cooper’s workload will only go up if he continues his pace.

“He’s now gone from a spot player in a backup role to being a guy that we’ve got to find ways to get him the football in space and let him create big plays for us,” Roberts said.

Roberts said the freshman back’s best trait on the field is his “extremely quick” speed. His teammates said his other strength is his desire to soak up whatever football knowledge he can.

Johnson said Cooper is attentive to details and listens to advice from older players, which has served him well so far.

“That’s what I like about Cooper. He’s not afraid to ask questions. He’s not afraid to learn,” Johnson said. “He definitely has shown improvement since he’s gotten here. I look forward to him being more successful this season.”

Cooper said the older running backs have passed on whatever advice they can, including staying humble and believing in Southeastern’s system. He said he’s trying to absorb “as much as I possibly can.”

“The upperclassmen, they’ve been here before, so they obviously know more than me,” Cooper said. “By them being able to come to me and give me good info, that helps me a lot. That’s definitely why I listen to them so much.”

Cooper may be a walk-on, but he said he hasn’t felt like one since he was recruited by Southeastern last year. He said offensive coordinator Matt Barrett first called him in November, and he's felt nothing but love since.

“Even though I’m a walk-on, they still show love and they still show that they want me to be there,” he said. “I have to give them everything I’ve got.”