Jordan West took the majority of the snaps at quarterback for the Eastern Washington Eagles as a redshirt junior in 2015, and his job was pretty straightforward: Get the ball to the team’s playmakers.
They had no particular shortage of them, West said, though two stood out rather obviously: Cooper Kupp and Kendrick Bourne.
“I was very lucky,” West said. “We had a lot of good guys on that offense, a lot of high-caliber receivers and a lot of options. But Kendrick and Coop, those guys, you want to get them the ball.”
West certainly did that. He and Reilly Hennessey combined to complete 289 passes that year, and 185 of them went to that duo.
So did 27 of their 34 touchdown passes, and 68% of the team’s total receiving yards.
For the past few years, West has watched Kupp and Bourne play on Sundays. But for both of the former Eastern Washington receivers, no season before has been quite like this one.
Bourne is having a career-best year, with 776 yards on 52 receptions for the New England Patriots.
Kupp is having one of the greatest statistical seasons in pro football history for the Los Angeles Rams.
Both will play Sunday as their teams tune up for a playoff run that they hope will end in the same place: Super Bowl LVI.
Gage Gubrud, who took over for West the next year and played with Bourne and Kupp, said he doesn’t watch a ton of pro football. But he makes a point to watch his former teammates when he can.
“It’s fun to be able to say, I played with those guys, and that they’re having a ton of success,” Gubrud said.
During their time at Eastern Washington, Bourne and Kupp formed a formidable duo from 2013 to 2016.
Kupp amassed more receiving yards than any Eastern receiver before or since, with 6,464 on 428 receptions. Next on the career list is Eric Kimble (who played from 2002-05), with 4,140 yards on 253 receptions.
In 2015, Kupp won the Walter Payton Award as the best offensive player in the FCS, a distinction Eagles quarterback Eric Barriere was given Friday in Frisco, Texas. Of the award’s 35 recipients, only one other was a receiver. That was Brian Finneran of Villanova in 1997, who had 238 receptions and 3,093 receiving yards in his NFL career, numbers that Kupp has already surpassed.
While Kupp’s college numbers were gaudy, Bourne’s were still historically significant in a program renowned for its passing game. Over those same four seasons, Bourne had 211 catches for 3,130 yards, seventh and fifth most, respectively, in program history.
Bourne wasn’t drafted out of college – Kupp went in the third round to the Rams – but the San Francisco 49ers signed him to a three-year deal and Bourne spent his first four years with the organization. Last March, Bourne signed a three-year contract with the Patriots.
“KB was undrafted, so his role was tougher,” said Shaq Hill, who played three years with both at Eastern. “But the biggest thing with Kendrick is his consistency. (And) personality is really big for him. That opened a lot of doors for him, more than someone who doesn’t love life as much as he does.
“Now his ability is really starting to show.”
Gubrud said that recently he saw a video of Bourne “doing normal Kendrick things” and making the stoic Patriots head coach, Bill Belichick, laugh.
“Kendrick, he was always smiling, always happy to be playing,” Gubrud said. “He just loves the game.”
While Bourne has become a go-to option for the Patriots, Kupp has brought his game to historic levels this season.
Three NFL receivers have won what’s known as the Triple Crown, finishing a season with the most receptions, receiving yards and receiving touchdowns in the league. Jerry Rice was the first, in 1990. Then Sterling Sharpe accomplished it in 1992, followed by Steve Smith in 2005.
Barring a big game from Cincinnati receiver Ja’Marr Chase, who trails Kupp by two touchdowns, Kupp will join that trio Sunday. He has 138 catches this season, 21 more than Green Bay’s Davante Adams, and he has 1,829 yards, 320 more than Minnesota’s Justin Jefferson.
“I’ve watched him every year in the NFL and he’s definitely progressing,” West said, “and I’ve loved watching him with (Rams quarterback) Matthew Stafford. Clearly he’s getting the ball more than he ever has.
“He’s doing things that there’s not a lot of people doing in the league. He’s definitely top-tier.”
Kupp is also within reach of single-season NFL records for receptions (he needs 11 to tie Michael Thomas’ 2019 mark) and yards (he is 135 shy of Calvin Johnson’s 2012 total). But Kupp said this week during Rams’ media availability that it would be unfair to compare those, given this NFL season is one game longer.
“It wouldn’t seem right for those to be broken in 17 games,” Kupp said. “It just wouldn’t hold the same weight to me as it does for guys who have done that in a 16-game season and the accomplishments those guys had and the seasons those guys put together.
“You kind of have to separate the two. We’re in a new age of football here where we’re playing 17 games a year.”
Anyway, Kupp said, his priority Sunday is winning the game and improving the Rams’ playoff positioning by locking up the NFC West Division title.
Kupp has long had a reputation at Eastern Washington for an unmatched work ethic, the player who always seemed to be working out, watching film or otherwise preparing for football games. During the last offseason, Kupp said, he trained with EForce Sports – a company co-founded by former Washington State quarterback Alex Brink – in the Portland area.
But it isn’t just Kupp’s physical skills that have made him an elite receiver.
“Cooper, the guy just worked so hard all the time, not just physically but on the mental side,” Gubrud said. “He processes the game at an unreal level, at a level not even a lot of quarterbacks process. We always joked that deep down he wanted to be a quarterback.”
To that point, Kupp was asked Monday about his problem-solving approach to planning for a given opponent. He turned the conversation toward one aspect of his game that he has worked on closely this year: blocking.
“I’ve really enjoyed being able to be a part of the blocking (aspect) of the run game more than I ever have been,” Kupp said, “and being able to work collaboratively with the offensive line and be a pseudo tight end, if you will, (to) be in working combinations with tight ends and tackles and find ways to run the ball more efficiently. Being a part of that has been a new part of the game that I’ve never been able to be as a part of as I would like to.
“That’s been one of the funnest things about this year is the evolution of being involved in every facet of this offense, where it’s not just in the pass game but really, truly being involved in the run game, and not just being a wide receiver that’s supposed to block (defensive backs).”
Kupp was a member of the Rams team that went to the Super Bowl after the 2018 season, but he didn’t get to play, having suffered a midseason knee injury. To West, whose friendship with Kupp includes being in each other’s weddings, the value Kupp places on any individual records pales compared to that he places on winning a championship.
“He’s dialed in. He’s not taking anything for granted,” West said. “Those records he’s getting close to setting will not mean a whole lot if they don’t go out there and win the Super Bowl.”
Hill, a longtime fan of the Rams, said it would be nice to see his former teammates face each other in the Super Bowl. He would also like to see Kupp break records Sunday and help keep the rival 49ers out of the playoffs.
And then, Hill and everyone else watching will see what Kupp can do in the postseason, where he has played only two games in his career.
“He’s probably going to get double- and triple-teamed in the playoffs,” Hill said, “but for some reason, he’s always open.”
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