It was a freak play, but Ketner Kupp blames himself.
The last time the Eastern Washington linebacker suited up with his now-budding NFL receiver brother, Cooper Kupp, he was on the wrong side of a pass that sent Youngstown State to the 2016 FCS national championship game.
As slowflakes stuck to Roos Field’s red turf, Ketner dropped into air-tight coverage of tight end Kevin Rader toward the back of the end zone in the closing seconds.
A walled-off Rader reached around Kupp with one arm, getting a hand on a pass he pinned to the back of the sophomore defender’s shoulder pads.
Touchdown, Youngstown State. Heartbreak in Cheney on a prime-time ESPNU broadcast.
On Tuesday, Kupp, now a senior captain for the fourth-ranked Eagles (5-1, 3-0 Big Sky) pointed to a phone where he once saved a video of the strange, game-deciding play.
And not because he’s a glutton for punishment.
“It served as a reminder,” Kupp said. “If I was this much better, faster or stronger, and more prepared, that play doesn’t happen. It’s definitely something that’s driven me.”
His 43 tackles are tops for a EWU defense that’s allowed just 17 points in each of its three conference wins, a transformation that has coaches and pundits around the country considering the Eagles as a national title contender.
EWU’s hallmark over the last decade has been its offense, one that ranks third in the country (570 yards per game).
The 6-foot, 230-pound Kupp is helping spearhead a change in culture on the other side of the football.
“This defense has a chance to be as good as it was in 2010 (EWU’s national title season), and I’m glad to be a part of it,” he said.
He leads it, according to linebackers coach Josh Fetter, but mostly by example.
Fetter, a linebacker at Idaho in the early 1990s, said Kupp’s discipline is what separated him from many others at his position.
Having an innate nose for the football doesn’t hurt, either.
“He loves the preparation and the grind,” Fetter said. “He’s very rarely out of place and he knows the entire defense.”
Big brother Cooper agrees.
“He’s spent so much time and effort making himself into the player he is today,” said Cooper, who said he talks to Ketner almost daily. “He’s truly self-made and has become a great linebacker.”
Ketner looks like a rugged run-stopper, too. With his short red hair and matching beard, he’s often driving ballcarriers into the turf, and relishes the hard hits.
But like his congenial, record-setting brother, he’s one of the first to dole out a hand to help ballcarriers get back on their feet.
“I don’t necessarily like that, but that’s always been his thing,” Fetter said. “I’ve been trying to get him to stop that for years.”
From his senior year at A.C. Davis High in Yakima to about his second year at EWU, Kupp said he’d get annoyed when referred to as “Cooper’s brother.”
He understood the distinction, though.
Cooper was arguably the best receiver in FCS history before he was drafted in the third round by the Los Angeles Rams in 2017.
A year after setting the Rams’ rookie receptions record (92), Cooper continues to be one of the top young receivers in the NFL. Through five games this season, he’s hauled in 30 passes for 438 yards and five touchdowns for the undefeated Rams.
Three years apart, the brothers starred at Davis before teaming up again in Cheney. By the time Ketner arrived on campus as a true freshman in 2015, Cooper had already established himself as one the top receivers in the county.
“It would wear me on a little bit,” Ketner said of being referred to as Cooper’s brother. “But now it doesn’t. I’m very happy for his success. He’s someone I’ve always looked up to.”
Ketner was also a receiver at Davis. The summer before his junior year, he earned MVP at EWU’s high school football camp for his pass-catching efforts.
He knew his Division I ticket – he was also offered by Idaho State and recruited by North Dakota State – was going to be at linebacker, a position at which he wears his emotions on his sleeve.
Cooper was a little more reserved.
“They’re very both very similar, but total opposite in some ways,” Fetter said of the brothers. “They’re both great people, with big hearts and raised by a great family.”
Ketner could think of one big difference, one he said stuck out to former head coach Beau Baldwin immediately.
Earlier in his freshman year, Ketner casually dropped a curse word in a conversation within earshot of Baldwin, who was taken aback by his language. Not because he was offended, but because his brother was about as famous around campus for his tidy image as he was for busting coverage.
“(Baldwin) was like, ‘Did you just say what I think you said?’ ” Ketner said. “So other than being a little bit of a potty mouth, I’d say Cooper and I are pretty similar.”
Cooper pointed out the obvious differences.
“I’m a receiver and he’s a linebacker, so we’re sworn enemies,” Cooper said. “And obviously, he’s a strong linebacker and I have the look of a receiver.”
Don’t bet against Ketner
Last month, two days after tallying 162 yards and two touchdowns in a Thursday night football win over the Minnesota Vikings, Cooper made a surprise trip to Bozeman to watch his brother face Montana State.
Wearing a hat and sunglasses on a overcast day, Cooper inconspicuously stood in the stands with his family. He wanted to support his brother and jetted up the Northwest as soon as he had the time.
“He’s someone I truly love to be around,” Cooper said. “We’re very close.”
When Cooper and the Rams visited the Seahawks last week, dozens of friends and family made the trip to Seattle, but Ketner didn’t.
Ketner said he wanted to stay in Cheney to heal up, as Cooper’s game was less than 24 hours after the Eagles’ 55-17 thrashing of Southern Utah.
Big brother understood.
“The coolest thing is his love for the game,” Cooper said.
But can he play professionally, NFL or CFL, like so many EWU alums have done?
Ketner, a business major, said he hopes an opportunity materializes once he’s done at EWU. If not, he said he hopes to put his degree to use in Seattle or Yakima.
“I would never bet against Ketner,” Cooper said.
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