BOXTOROW HBCU NFL Draft Chronicles: Tarik Cohen

by Donal Ware

Some of the information was taken from a story I wrote for the News and Observer which ran on November 17, 2016.

The 2016 football season did not end the way former North Carolina A&T star running back Tarik Cohen would have liked.  The Aggies lost to archrival North Carolina Central 42-21 on November 19, the last day of the regular season in a game that decided the MEAC championship.

After having new life breathed into them the next day when the Aggies found out they had received an at-large berth to the FCS Playoffs, the Aggies jumped out to a 7-0 lead a week later against fellow nationally ranked Richmond, only to lose 39-10 to the Spiders on the road.

The story does not end there for Cohen who was invited to the NFL Scouting Combine in March. During the NFL Draft April 27-29, he looks to become the first player from North Carolina A&T to be selected since center Junius Coston was taken in the fifth round by the Green Bay Packers in 2005.

A&T was the only offer
He was one of the best players in college football this season and put up some of the best numbers by a running back in FCS/I-AA history.

As a junior at tiny Bunn High School, about 34 miles north of downtown Raleigh, Cohen helped lead the Wildcats to a 9-3 record and a third-round finish in the playoffs. In two years on the varsity team, he put up great numbers but his small size scared off schools.

“I watched him in high school, and he was just too small,” A&T head coach Rod Broadway said. “And Coach [Trei] Oliver wouldn’t let it die and would say take a look at this guy again.

“I read this quote Bill Parcells said one time which said, ‘Err on the side of production, not size.’ So I went and met with him, and he was bigger than what I thought on tape. And we ended up offering him a scholarship and he signed and the rest is history.”

For all of the accolades, two championships and a Black college national championship, A&T was Cohen’s lone scholarship offer.

At North Carolina A&T
On November 12 in Dover, Del., it was just another day at the office for Cohen.  He rushed for 221 yards on 13 carries and two touchdowns – the first for 59 yards, the second for 84 yards – as the Aggies dismantled Delaware State 45-14.  His 84-yard touchdown run marked the fourth time this year that he has scored a touchdown of 80 yards or more. Cohen finished the season fourth in FCS in rushing (1,588), tied for third in rushing touchdowns (18) and third in yards per carry (7.5).

Prolific numbers.

In 2015, in the first-ever Celebration Bowl played before a nationally televised audience on ABC, Cohen rushed for 297 yards and three touchdowns against Alcorn State. He became the all-time leading rusher in MEAC history on Oct. 6 against Hampton at Aggie Stadium when he rushed for 200 yards and broke the record on a 62-yard touchdown run. For his career Cohen rushed for 5,619 yards and 55 touchdowns.

His first college game was against Appalachian State in 2013, and he carried the ball three times for 9 yards. As the season went on, he received more carries and made more of an impact.

He began to become Tarik Cohen on Oct. 12, 2013, when he carried the ball 22 times for 180 yards and a touchdown against Hampton. He followed that up two weeks later with a 32-carry, 210-yard, three-touchdown performance against Florida A&M. Cohen was named MEAC Rookie of the Year after finishing the season with 195 carries for 1,148 yards and eight touchdowns.

Regardless of whether or not he’s drafted, Cohen will have his degree to fall back on.  He will graduate in May with a degree in Sports Science/Business Management.  To be able to do that in four years and play at a high level means a lot.

”I really credit my academic success to my advisors and overall foundation they put around us,” said Cohen.  With his degree he hopes to open up facilities where college athletes looking to go to the NFL can train.

Rock star
“I can’t wait to meet Tarik.”

That is what one little boy said while waiting outside the visitor’s locker room at Delaware State. Cohen continues to be a phenomenon. People waited to meet and take pictures with him after games, particularly on the road and at the Aggie press luncheons during the season.

“It makes me feel good because I used to be that little boy,” said Cohen, a three-time BOXTOROW All-American and 2016 BOXTOROW National Offensive Player of the Year. “I like the exposure that it gives to North Carolina A&T. It feels good going to the grocery store and people knowing who (we) are.”

Quite a bit of this exposure began almost two years ago when Cohen was recorded catching footballs off the Jugs machine while doing back flips. This was noticed by ESPN where it subsequently appeared on Top 10 Plays and ultimately earned him an invite to the ESPN campus.

“The experience was like no other,” Cohen said. “The ESPN campus is like a college campus. And while I was walking around the campus they told me that Lil’ Wayne had tweeted about me and that was a surreal moment.”

Washington Redskins second-year wide receiver Jamison Crowder had glowing remarks for Cohen during the season.

“Yeah I follow him a lot, he’s definitely one of the top guys playing college football right now,” Crowder said eight months ago on FROM THE PRESS BOX TO PRESS ROW. “And I say that Division I-AA or Division I. What he does out there on the field, it’s crazy, it’s amazing.”

A&T was shown on ESPN six times this season in part because of Cohen.

Cohen’s grandfather is accomplished actor Obba Babatunde, who has appeared in films including  Life, The Manchurian Candidate, John Q, Philadelphia and How High.  Cohen talked with him via phone over the years, but met him for the first time since he was really young, recently.

“[Meeting him] was like a weird experience at first because I didn’t know how he was going to be, I only knew him from the movies,” said Cohen.  “He was a really cool dude and I’m blessed to call him by grandfather.

“He’s big on holding down the family name,” said Cohen.  “He told me I’m capable of all I want to do because it’s in my blood.  He’s always had his eyes on me and that he continuously loves me and that I need to make it to the top.”

NFL Prospect
During the season, Cohen stood just 5 feet 6, 173 pounds.  With his offseason regiment, he has added six more pounds of muscle.  Despite his production, NFL scouts are leery of his size and wonder if he will be able to take the pounding in the NFL. A lot of people expect that he’ll be used less in offensive schemes but more as a kick returner.  He has often been compared to Darren Sproles of the Philadelphia Eagles.

Prior to the NFL Scouting Combine and his pro day, Cohen was projected as a free agent signee or low round draft choice.  But after his excellent performance at the Combine including running the third fastest time amongst running backs, 4.42/40, and his performance at the A&T pro day, his exploits all but guaranteed that he will be drafted.  But Cohen is cautiously optimistic.

“I can’t say for sure, but I feel like my performance was good enough to get me drafted, but if that’s not in God’s will then I’m okay with that,” said Cohen.  “I’m confident in my ability that I will find a place with an NFL team and when I get there not only make the team but become a key factor.”

Cohen says that when people talk about his size, it doesn’t bother him because he’s heard it all of his life.  He however wants to succeed and feels like failure is not an option.

“The fear of failure drives me to go hard in the offseason and do the little things and be very detailed in my work,” said Cohen.  “That’s really what keeps me going, the fear of not making it.”

The one constant knock against good or great players at small schools is that they didn’t play consistently against competition at the FBS level.  While Cohen only played two games against FBS teams in his career, he excelled. In 2015 against North Carolina he averaged 4.6 yards per carry on 15 attempts.  This past season against Kent State, he totaled 258 all-purpose yards (125 rushing, 133 receiving) and a touchdown including some scintillating runs as the Aggies defeated the Golden Flashes 39-36 in four overtimes.

He’s known as the “human joystick” for his ability to make cuts on a dime.

So far Cohen has visited and worked out with the New York Jets, Chicago Bears and Denver Broncos, and the Green Bay Packers and Philadelphia Eagles held private workouts for him.

“Class and workouts,” says Cohen when asked what these last five months have been like for him.

And after April 29, practice and that degree.

Note: Some of the preeminent former HBCU football players have appeared on BOXTOROW over the years, weeks prior to the NFL Draft. Beginning in 2006, BOXTOROW interviewed current Arizona Cardinals safety Antoine Bethea of Howard and former Minnesota Vikings and Seattle Seahawks quarterback Tavaris Jackson of Alabama State two weeks before the draft.  BOXTOROW has interviewed players every year since.  Cohen will appear on BOXTOROW this weekend on one of these radio stations across the country or Saturday 9 a. m. ET/8 a.m. CT/6 a.m. PT on SiriusXM Channel 142.