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Injury has draft prospect on the hop

Jacob Hopper at training in Melbourne before the Academy's US trip - ${keywords}
Jacob Hopper at training in Melbourne before the Academy's US trip
I've had to handle injury a bit, so I feel like I know what I'm doing now
Jacob Hopper

BEHIND the hills and by himself, Jacob Hopper ran lap after lap, pushing himself to exhaustion.

It was the first main training session of the NAB AFL Academy's camp in Florida earlier this month, and most of the 34 players on tour were running up and down the hills to complete a demanding morning of work.

Hopper, in his recovery from a knee injury, couldn't complete that task but didn't want to be doing nothing: he hadn't flown around the world – almost 35 hours from departure to destination – to stand on the sidelines.

So he stuck at his individual program, and was still going as the team finished and headed for the bus at the IMG Academy in Bradenton.

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"I stepped up my running load on the trip," Hopper told AFL.com.au. "I needed to get my body used to it again."

Good things are expected of Hopper this year as one of the highly touted draft prospects of 2015. But the 17-year-old might be off-limits for most clubs, as a member of the Greater Western Sydney academy.

Callum Mills – perhaps the best player in the draft pool – has already attracted some attention as he seems set to join the Sydney Swans as an academy selection later this year.

But some recruiters feel Hopper, a tough, classy midfielder with a presence, is in the same territory as Mills right near the top of this year's crop.  

The AFL this week revealed its new sliding scale bidding system for academy and father-son prospects, which seems likely to be introduced for this year's draft.

Hopper trained with the Giants for a week in December and enjoyed it despite being in the rehab group, but doesn't want to approach his year viewing GWS as his only hope.

"Obviously there's a strong connection there and they want to see me have a good year, but I just want to play some good footy and keep going along the right track," he said.

"It's good to know [the academy possibility is there] but at the same time you don't want to use it to be complacent – you just need to think like you're going into an open draft.

"I'm still looking at it as that I could end up anywhere. They have first dibs on me, and it's good to see there's a program out there for New South Wales and Queensland boys.

"I think we're on the right way now in the developing states. We're starting to be really competitive and it's good that we're stepping forward."

Despite this, Hopper won't spend much of his draft year in New South Wales after moving from Leeton, a small town in the Riverina, to Ballarat so that he could experience a higher standard of junior football.  

He played in the TAC Cup with the North Ballarat Rebels and joined St Patrick's College, which has sparked discussion that he may play for Vic Country in division one of this year's NAB AFL Under-18 Championships instead of the NSW-ACT Rams.

Whichever team it is, Hopper just wants to be fit enough to be out there after having an unlucky run with injury in the past two years.

A torn cartilage injury in his right knee saw him miss the under-16s carnival, before a broken hand interrupted his mid-season championships last year.

Then, just as his form started to come together towards the end of 2014 for the Rebels, he felt his left knee loosen while running.

It was a repeat of the under-16s injury but on the other knee, and has been a long process to get right.

He made strong progress during the training camp in America and has set his mind to bigger things by the end of this season.

"It was pretty badly torn and took a while to come good," Hopper said. "Now it's about getting back on the track. I've had to handle injury a bit, so I feel like I know what I'm doing now.

"It makes you a lot tougher and stronger for it, as much as you hate it at the time because you're missing out on good games. Hopefully that changes this year.

"It's an exciting year, and obviously the end goal is to get drafted. Hopefully it all goes well and that can happen."