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Inside The Chart: Forward Progress

by Andy Demetra (The Voice of the Yellow Jackets)

When he opted for a fresh start, Trey Cooley also opted for a fresh number.

Gone was the No. 23 he had worn to stardom as a running back in Raleigh, N.C., then for two years at the University of Louisville. When he arrived at Georgia Tech out of the transfer portal in January, Cooley chose the number 0 as part reminder, part motivational ploy.

“I kind of liked to leave the past behind me, so I just wanted a new start,” he explained.

“I had to start over from nothing. I had to come here and earn what I have.”

So far he’s earned repeat trips to the end zone – and a growing role in the Yellow Jackets’ backfield.

VIDEO: Jamal Haynes and Trey Cooley combine to go over 200 yards vs. S.C. State (ACC Digital Network)

One of three North Carolina natives on the Georgia Tech roster, the 5-foot-10, 197-pounder returns to his home state Saturday to face 3-0 Wake Forest at Allegacy Stadium in Winston-Salem (6:30 p.m. ET, Georgia Tech Sports Network from Legends Sports). In three games, Cooley ranks second on the Yellow Jackets in rushing (65.3 ypg) while leading the team with four touchdowns.

“It’s impressive how fast he truly is,” said Georgia Tech running backs coach Norval McKenzie.

Lately his uniform number has picked up another meaning: Cooley still has zero negative rushing yards in 32 carries, a fact that surprised even him.

That may come under siege against a Wake Forest defense that leads the ACC in tackles for loss per game (8.3). But Cooley says it reflects his commitment to being a hard-nosed, tough-to-take-down back in head coach Brent Key’s offense.

“Coach Key tells us we have to be physical up front, and as a running back, that’s what he wants, and that’s what we have to display,” he said.

The oldest of four, Cooley’s talents first gained attention at Knightdale High School in Knightdale, N.C. Even before then, competition was ever-present among his family members, a group that included younger brother Tamarcus, now a freshman nickel back at Maryland.

“Whether it was going good or bad, we always made the best of what we had. A lot of football, a lot of sports, a lot of track, a lot of street football, grass football – just football my whole life,” said Cooley, who balanced that competition with hunting, fishing and four-wheeling trips to his grandfather Michael Reid’s placid property in Wendell, N.C.

Georgia Tech and Wake Forest both offered the four-star back, but he instead signed with fellow ACC member Louisville, where he was recruited by McKenzie. In two seasons he showed promise – he rushed for 112 yards against Boston College as a freshman, and twice he topped 70 rushing yards in conference play in 2022 – but not quite the breakthrough he had hoped for. 

His freshman year also overlapped with running back Hassan Hall, who left Louisville in 2021 before turning in a resurgent final season with Georgia Tech. Cooley said Hall’s success didn’t influence his own decision to transfer to Tech, though he credits the Atlanta native with giving him some much-needed confidence early in his career.

“He showed me hard work. Obviously, I do work hard, but sometimes when [your teammates] have so much talent, you really never know how much talent you have until someone else tells you. He was one of the first people to tell me, ‘Hey, you’ve got it. And this is what you need to do to maintain that and surpass that,’” Cooley said.

Back home in Raleigh, an NFL running back has also become a mentor to him. As an eighth grader, a mutual friend connected Cooley with Nyheim Hines, a Garner, N.C., native who starred at N.C. State before playing for the Indianapolis Colts and Buffalo Bills. Cooley first approached him at a basketball game, eager to share his own ambitions in the sport. A relationship formed that continues to this day.

“He’ll text me before games. I’ll text him before games. He’ll call me when he’s on vacation. We train together sometimes when we’re back at home in the summer,” he said. “I know I can call him and ask for any advice and he’ll give it to me. He’s definitely like a big brother to me.”

(After he rushed for 52 yards and two touchdowns in Georgia Tech’s season opener against his former school, Cooley said he received a text of encouragement from Hines at 2:44 a.m. that night.)

VIDEO: Trey Cooley highlights vs. Louisville (ACC Digital Network)

Acts of service mean a lot to Cooley. In middle school, he spent plenty of time around special needs students; his school’s special education teacher, Amanda Roediger, happened to moonlight as N.C. State’s dance team instructor. One time, she invited Cooley to watch a Wolfpack basketball game from her floor seats. He still recalls the conversations he shared that night with N.C. State’s players, the way it uplifted him and made him feel his own dreams were attainable.

Perhaps that’s why he’s lost track of the number of football gloves he’s tossed out to kids during his college career. He wants to leave an impression on people the same way Hines left an impression on him. Much like his rushing attempts, he wants a positive experience for everyone who comes in his orbit.

As he explained: “Growing up, I know I didn’t have everything. I didn’t have the luxury to go to college games.  Sometimes you never know – it might be that kid’s last dollar to get to that game, so I want to give them the best experience that I can. If someone asks me for something, or asks for a picture, or they want to interact, I try to just to give them the experience that they can have. Because it might be their only chance.”

Georgia Tech, on the other hand, represents a second chance for Cooley, who comes home Saturday as a burgeoning weapon on the nation’s 14th-ranked offense. Cooley’s cousin, Quinton Cooley, played running back at Wake Forest before transferring to Liberty in the offseason; he may miss the family reunion, but not many others will. Cooley says a large contingent of relatives plans on making the roughly 100-mile drive from Raleigh to watch him play. Among them is his grandfather, 85-year-old Michael Reid, who hasn’t watched him in person since the first game of his college career.

It may feel like a full-circle moment this Saturday.  But when his No. 0 is called, Trey Cooley’s path will remain straight ahead.


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