MIAMI — The highlight reels are always long for Mark Pope. It doesn’t matter if they’re cropped from what he did at Miami Southridge High School, with the Florida Fire 7-on-7 program or just at a random camp or All-American showcase — Pope makes plays and he makes them frequently. Contortionist-level catches, circuitous punt returns, lightning-quick end arounds and, of course, uncoverable deep balls dot any collection of Pope plays. It’s hard to start any package anywhere other than with the final game of his junior season.
There have been state championship-winning plays which could probably be deemed more clutch. There have certainly been more dazzling individual plays. Still, it’s hard to find a play to better embody Pope than the 72-yard deep ball with 4 minutes, 20 seconds remaining to effectively win a state title. Everyone has their own individual favorite Pope play. Everyone also acknowledges Pope’s title-winner is at a level of its own.
Pope was a household name in national recruiting circles by the time he solidified his high school legacy. Just about every national power had zeroed in on the prospect and Alabama was set on making Pope the latest star wide receiver for them to pry out of South Florida.
A few months later, Pope opted to stay home. A 4-star wide receiver in the 247Sports composite rankings, Pope committed to Miami last March. Hurricanes fans had plenty of reasons to be excited — Miami beat a host of national powers; he’s a dynamic playmaker; his nickname is “Noodles” — and Pope has only given them more reasons in the year since. But even after impressing at Paradise Camp, The Opening Finals and the U.S. Army All-American Game, Pope’s game-winner stands as the ultimate highlight on his resume.
Pope is one of those rare prospects it doesn’t feel crazy to call a prodigy. From the day he made the move to wide receiver as a middle-schooler in Pop Warner Little Scholars, Pope was a playmaker. He helped the Palmetto Raiders win the Pop Warner national championship the year before he began at Miami Southridge. Scouting services pegged him as the next great South Florida wide receiver before he even played a high school down. Pope suited up for Southridge’s varsity team as a freshman. He didn’t miss a beat in transitioning to the high school level.
Pope: “My freshman year, I was playing a lot because one of the receivers was hurt, so I started, kind of, sort of.”
David Cooney, former Southridge offensive coordinator: “His first year — actually, I couldn’t coach that year because I had just left Coral Gables [Fla., Senior High School]. Just kind of being on the sidelines you saw the abilities of someone who was going to be really instrumental in trying to achieve our goals.”
Pope: “I was pretty good at it. I started getting better and better at it. … I was just running past guys. Throw it up there.”
Southridge was good in 2014, so it took Pope a little while to become a major part of the offense. In the penultimate game of the regular season, though, the wideout scored his first career touchdown against Miami Killian High School. It served as a springboard to a breakthrough summer and a big sophomore year.
Pope: “It was just a little seam route up the middle. My first touchdown. My first high school touchdown.”
Patrick Cooney, Southridge recruiting coordinator: “Everybody knew who he was by then. People always said in Pop Warner he was that guy, too.”
Pope built his national profile in the coming months. He competed at a Crimson Tide camp before his sophomore year and turned heads. North Carolina State, Alabama, Georgia and Tennessee all offered within a month or so of the end of Pope’s sophomore year.
Patrick Cooney: “Nobody could stick him [at Alabama] — literally. He could get open as he wanted. Literally every camp and even 7 on 7, he would always get open and he always had a route tree. It wasn’t just a go route only, but when it came to the go route nobody could stick him.”
David Cooney: “Going forward to his junior year, he was our leading receiver that year, and he was just really explosive with the ball. He’d make tough catches. You’d throw him a ball and he was more than likely to take it to the house.”
Ron Dugans, Miami wide receivers coach: “Mark Pope has quicks, speed, he can catch the football. The thing with Mark Pope is he makes a lot of contested catches. Anybody can make the easy catch, but he makes a lot of contested catches. He does a good job. He’s a good route runner, brings a lot to the table as far as skill set.”
Pope’s junior season was when he became a human highlight reel. As a wide receiver and return specialist, Pope usually managed one eye-popping play per game, even with the defense-first Spartans.
David Cooney: “We were playing our rival, playing against [Miami’s Christopher Columbus High School] his junior year and he made a big third down catch that let us get into scoring range and score, and put us up early in the game, but he kind of sealed the game with a punt return later on in the game. They made the mistake of kicking the ball to him and he made some moves kind of similar to Peter Warrick. … That moment there kind of like stuck out to me.”
Riding its defense and the big-play ability of Pope, Southridge fought its way to the 2016 Florida High School Athletic Association championship in Class 8A. For the first 24 minutes of the title game, the Spartans offense was a disaster, managing only 55 yards against Orlando’s Dr. Phillips High School. Down 10-0 heading to the fourth quarter, Southridge needed big plays. The Spartans faced a must-convert fourth-and-9 from Dr. Phillips’ 26-yard line. The obvious play was throwing to Pope.
Billy Rolle, Southridge coach after the game: “He was calling for the ball and we knew we had to throw it in the second half.”
Patrick Cooney: “He wants the ball, and when you need a play he’s going to make a play. He’s one of those trusted receivers that you always know when you need a play, no matter where you line him up at or what route it is, he’s going to get open.”
Pope converted the fourth down with his first catch of the day and the Spartans scored four plays later to cut the Tigers’ lead to 10-6. Ultimately, Southridge’s season would come down to one final drive, beginning with 5:56 remaining. The lead-up was a disaster: Pope’s punt return went for a minus-9 yards and a personal foul pushed the Spartans back. Southridge started at its 11-yard line with the season on the line. The Spartans got one gift. A pass interference call on third-and-8 pushed Southridge up to its 28-yard line.
David Cooney: “All through the year, actually kind of going back to the summer, we were used to playing in those type of moments. We won at Mark Richt’s 7-on-7 that year, we went to [University of West] Florida, won the 7-on-7 there. We played with the Florida Fire and won a championship there, as well, so they were used to being in those situations. There would come times in the game when we needed big plays and those core group of guys were together.”
Michael Cox, Southridge quarterback: “We were talking to Coach Cooney before we went on the field. I saw that Pope was beating the corner all game so I told Cooney, ‘Let’s go deep.'”
David Cooney: “Pope the whole game was like, ‘Coach, get me the ball. Get me the ball. Get me the ball.’ And I was just like, ‘Look, the time’s going to come.’ Later on in the game, he really had to make catches because our running back went down and they were really rolling the coverages.”
Pope: “Coach Cooney — he put me outside because I was fast. It was a bubble and go outside.”
David Cooney: “Actually that exact same play was run earlier in the game to [Daquris] Wiggins and the quarterback overthrew Wiggins.”
Cox: “We called fake bubble bomb on the outside and the corner bit on it, and then Pope ran by him with his speed and I threw the ball.”
David Cooney: “His favorite thing to say is, ‘Coach, they can’t cover me. They can’t run with me.’ And I love when he got into that zone because once he locks in, he’s damn near unstoppable. There’s nothing he can’t do with the ball in his hands. The moment he ran up under that go ball, it was in true Pope fashion. It kind of like sealed the game.”
Pope: “It was just a play that I always make. I make those type of plays.”
Billy Rolle: “At that point, we thought they’d just be hanging back, sitting back, so we really just took a shot. It really was taking a shot.”
Cooney: “We had [thrown] the bubble successfully that drive a couple times and got first downs and then I was like, Let’s go for the gusto. So we called the bubble and go, and he ran up under it and the rest is history.”
Pope: “My phone actually blew up. It was kind of crazy. … To put on that ring, put on that medal, it’s just like a dream.”
The next step
In a postgame interview following the state title, Pope likened the Spartans’ defense to Alabama’s. “Roll Tide defense,” he said. Everyone sort of assumed Pope would wind up with the Crimson Tide — including Pope himself. Not even four months later, though, Pope picked Miami. Hurricanes fans, understandably, were elated. So was David Cooney, who had recently been hired by Miami.
David Cooney: “His dynamic ability with the ball in his hands is something that we haven’t had here in a long time at the University of Miami, so a kid like him, a local kid, being able to keep him home is big. Having the ability for our fans to see him on a week-in, week-out basis, with the ability to change the game because everybody loves the long ball and the long scores, so to have a kid with the ability to do that every time he touches the ball is exciting.”
Pope: “I always had it. That’s always been me — shake, make guys miss.”
Patrick Cooney: “He was a highly ranked receiver. He was the No. 1 [in Florida], technically, so that alone and him being a local star at receiver — and not being able to get ones like how they missed out on [Jerry] Jeudy the year before — is one thing that I think transitioned people’s love for him that they finally got that big-name receiver to commit to the University of Miami.”