Before sitting in his first high school class and before his future football coach had even met him, the chatter about current rising senior Gaston Cooper reached Paint Branch coach Michael Nesmith.
As just an eighth grader, Cooper was already considered the next big thing for the Panthers as an athletically-gifted quarterback with a big arm.
“I heard there was a quarterback coming with this cannon,” Nesmith said. “I’d hear from so many different sources that we knew that it must be true — that this kid had a chance to be pretty special.”
It wasn’t just talk.
Cooper has developed into a top quarterback and Nesmith compares him to some of the greats to come through Montgomery County. For the upcoming season, his last with the Panthers, to be a success, Cooper said he knows the Panthers will have to improve on last year’s three wins, a rarity for the successful Paint Branch program.
Standing on the sideline Thursday during the last day of Montgomery Blair High’s passing league, Cooper blends in with his teammates. He has a slight frame, toned, but not muscular. When he takes off running down the field, he could easily be mistaken for one of Paint Branch’s wide receivers or running backs.
But when he throws the ball, it’s apparent why there has been so much buzz.
The tight spiral. The quick release. Arm strength. Accuracy. Cooper’s got it.
Nesmith said he hasn’t been around anyone with an arm like Cooper’s since Chris Kelley, the Seneca Valley quarterback in the late 1990s who went 26-0 during two state title runs.
“He has one of the best arms I’ve been around in high school,” Nesmith said. “There’s only been a handful of kids who can make all the throws at that level, with that type of velocity. We’re trying to teach him to be more of a passer. Sometimes he’s like John Elway, breaking kids fingers out there. The point is to complete the pass. You don’t have to fire it in there so hard. He’s learning that. It’s a process, but he’s improving so much that we’re excited to continue knowing we have a chance to be a good team.”
What’s held Cooper back is his decision making.
With the sure-handed Javonn Curry going out for passes, Cooper sometimes fell into the trap of focusing on one receiver. He’d rely on his strong arm to try to force the offense rather than letting it come to him.
Cooper used hours of film study to find the mistakes, and Nesmith said he has seen his quarterback’s decision making improve during the offseason.
During Thursday’s game against Bladensburg, after connecting on several deep touchdowns in the early portion of the game, Cooper changed tactics on the last drive.
Using short and quick passes, he and the Panthers maneuvered their way down the field for a touchdown to seal the win.
After the drive, he walked to the sideline rubbing his hands together, clearly pleased with the outcome.
“It felt nice because that’s what I was trying to focus on, progressing down the field and seeing how it could work,” Cooper said. “That was a good sign for me. Just how it could work and I have more faith in it instead of trying to sling it down the field all the time.”
But the deep ball is a weapon for the Panthers.
The combination of Cooper’s strong arm and Curry’s ability to meet the ball at its highest point can make for quick scores. The two connected on a 45-yard touchdown on Thursday, with Curry catching the ball at the 10-yard-line on a streak pattern and running into the end zone.
“We’ve been playing together for two years and we have a lot of chemistry,” Curry said. “It’s going to help and it’s going to be a good thing for us and our offense right now. We’ve been clicking. I think we’re going to be ready to go when the season starts.”
In his last chance for Cooper to leave a mark at the Burtonsville school and show the potential of all the buzz that arrived at Paint Branch before he did.
“It’s a lot of our last years, so we’re looking to make a big impact and make the playoffs,” he said. “We’re going to be giving it our all and leaving it on the field every game, every play, every minute until our bodies can’t do it anymore.”