Eighth-year Idaho football coach Paul Petrino spent years as a receivers coach in college and the NFL.
So it’s probably safe to assume he knows as well as most what it takes to stick at the highest level of the game. During the past couple of seasons, Petrino had supplied that information to Vandals star Jeff Cotton, who signed a deal as an undrafted free agent with the Los Angeles Chargers on April 25.
“I’ve told him all along, ‘Making it at wide receiver, most the time, that fifth guy that makes the team is about being a great special-teams player,’” said Petrino, who’s been specifically in charge of the position group at Idaho (1992-94), Utah State (1995-97), Louisville (1998-99 and 2003-06), Arkansas (2008-09), Illinois (2010-11), and with the Atlanta Falcons in 2007. “That’s the biggest goal for him, is just try to start on all four special teams (units), and that’d give him a great chance to make the team.”
In his two seasons at Idaho, Cotton often was employed on kick return, but also spent plenty of time in practice catching punts.
As a redshirt junior, he returned 13 kickoffs for 249 yards (19.15 average). His involvement on that end decreased in 2019 — he returned three kickoffs for 69 yards — because of freshman Nick Romano’s high-tier returning capabilities, which earned him All-Big Sky accolades.
But Petrino also has been high on the Cotton’s ability to block, on special teams and in clearing lanes for his fellow receivers.
“He’s big enough to block, whether it’s on punt protection, then running down and covering,” Petrino said of Cotton, who stands 6-foot-2 and weighs 205 pounds. “It doesn’t necessarily mean he has to be the returner; he’s big enough to be one of the blockers on kick return. He can cover kicks, he can cover punts.”
After a redshirt year in 2017, Cotton — a Pima Community College (Arizona) transfer — became a top receiving option for the Vandals, who went a combined 9-14 in his time there. To those paying attention, it was clear Cotton had the makings of a pro. The third-team All-American led the Football Championship Subdivision with 8.8 catches per game and was second in per-game yards at 114.1. Cotton, who missed two full games and two halves of other games with injuries, was a major threat for the Vandals. He finished his Idaho career with 1,797 yards and 14 touchdowns on 137 catches — ranking in the top 15 all-time in all categories.
Petrino has seen all of Cotton’s big-play abilities and he likes the outlook for the Tucson, Arizona, product.
“He’s worked extremely hard, and I think his biggest thing is staying healthy,” Petrino said. “If he does that, he’ll have a great chance to make it.”
OF NOTE: Cotton’s bio on the Chargers’ website recently was released. For now, he’ll sport jersey No. 8. ... Petrino, when asked of son and former UI quarterback Mason Petrino’s graduate-assistant job at Lamar University (Texas), and the three other former Vandals — guard Noah Johnson, cornerback Lloyd Hightower and tackle Sean Tulette — trying their hands at the pros, said: “A lot of our guys are really well-equipped to get to that next stage of their lives and continue working hard for their goals and passions. That’s something you take as much pride in as anything as a coach, is seeing when your players move on and become successful, and start doing things in the professions they picked.”