The path to seeing tangible results on the field for junior tight end Octavious Cooley has been an arduous one.
The Laurel native has always been gifted, but the soft hands and athletic 6-foot-3 frame he possesses were masked by weight issues in Cooley’s first two seasons in Oxford. Once at 290 pounds, Cooley was close to making the move to offensive lineman, a transition he both feared and loathed.
“I am already down in the trenches,” Cooley said. “I didn’t want to play tackle.”
Cooley struggled to keep weight off of him during his first freshman and sophomore years. Inconsistency off the field hindered his progress on the field. He would lose a few pounds, but eventually hurtle back towards the 290 pound mark. Cooley was five pounds away from moving to the offensive line.
“The trainers used to pick at me like ‘keep eating those Debbie Cakes, you’re going to be 290 pounds,’” Cooley said. “It happened fast too. I had to work hard to get it off of me.
“Just being 290, almost getting moved to offensive lineman. That was the crazy part. I had to lose 30 pounds. Coming up here early before workouts. It was hard.”
Cooley made a concerted effort to shed weight this offseason, and keep it off this time. A consistent future on the field depended upon it. He began to work harder, coming into the facility earlier in the morning to workout on his own, making sure he ate healthier and kept excess weight off of his frame.
“I have got to keep it steady,” Cooley said. “I’d like to get it down to 255. I’d like to be able to move faster.”
His work in the summer has proved to be fruitful. Cooley has caught balls in each of the last four games. He caught three passes for 66 yards a week ago against Texas A&M. He is becoming a bigger piece of the game plan seemingly by the week in the latter part of this season as Ole Miss barrels towards its November finish line.
Cooley scored a critical 66-yard touchdown that kept Ole Miss in the game in the win over Arkansas last month, a year after he made a critical blunder against the Razorbacks that drastically swung the momentum pendulum in favor of Arkansas. Ole Miss was leading 31-7 in the second quarter when Cooley caught a pass from Jordan Ta’amu for 31 yards before fumbling at the Rebels’ 33 yard line.
The turnover gave Arkansas a breath of of life. The Razorbacks parlayed it into a touchdown and quickly scored another before halftime to pull with in 10 points in a game that saw Ole Miss crumble in the second half in a stinging 38-37 defeat. Much like the struggles with his weight, the 2017 fumble against Arkansas tormented Cooley. The 66-yard touchdown en route to a win in Little Rock in 2018 was as satisfying a moment as Cooley has had in his career.
“Just like that weight, that fumble has been sticking with me all year,” Cooley said. “I have been hearing about it all year. What are you going to do in that Arkansas game? I had to do something. My chance came and I had to make a play.”
Cooley is now at a leaner 262 pounds, a mark he plans to maintain or even drop down towards 255 pounds. The dip has brought some of Cooley’s physical tools back to light.
“I have had hands for a long time,” Cooley said. “That weight just kept me from getting the separation I wanted. Now, it is all falling into place.”
His presence will be needed more than ever by the Ole Miss offense this week. Dawson Knox will sit out the first half against Vanderbilt after being ejected for targeting in the second half of the loss at Texas A&M. The spotlight will be squarely on Cooley at tight end. But after everything he has endured to simply get on the field consistently, he relishes opportunities like the one he will get on Saturday night.
“It took a lot,” Cooley said. “I am not going to lie. It took a lot for me to get where I am. I just want to thank God. I am happy with where I am at. I am doing better.”