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Oct. 12, 2012
By Bill Hass
GREENSBORO, N.C. (theACC.com) – It’s doubtful that anyone would want to pick on Jonathan Cooper these days.
At 6-foot-3 and nearly 300 pounds, he’s the leader on the offensive line at North Carolina, a team that has scored points in droves (264 so far) and compiled a 4-2 record heading into Saturday’s game at Miami.
Cooper, a fifth-year senior, will make his 42nd career start. He has twice been named second-team All-ACC and this season is considered the finest offensive lineman in the ACC and one of the best in the country. He is one of 25 finalists named for the Rotary Lombardi Award, given to the nation’s top lineman or linebacker.
“Jonathan's a tremendous player,” said Larry Fedora, now halfway through his first season as the Tar Heels’ head coach. “I can't imagine there being that many guards in the country with his kind of skill level. I've never had one, actually.”
Miami coach Al Golden said he has a lot of respect for the way UNC’s offensive line, and Cooper in particular, plays.
“This guy is as good as anybody,” Golden said.
High praise, indeed. But it wasn’t always that way. Growing up in Wilmington, Cooper was so big that he couldn’t participate in youth football unless he played several age groups higher. So he had to content himself with being the water boy for his brother’s team. And his size, not to mention his demeanor, led to inevitable teasing from other kids.
“I’ve always been pretty tall and always been a ‘fatty’,” Cooper said. “Seems like everyone caught up and passed me in the height but I’m still kind of chubby.
“Being a fat kid and being really, really nice, not wanting to fight, I kind of got picked on. It bothered me but I let it slide and moved on.”
When he reached middle school, where there were no weight restrictions, Cooper was finally able to play football. Not that he was very good as a seventh-grader.
“I had wanted to play since I was little but I never had the opportunity to do it organized,” he said. “So when I finally got to play I was excited about it but I was pretty soft. I was a big mama’s boy and tried to lean on people, I really didn’t have technique. It took a little while to get my strength and my tenacity up.”
He learned the fine points of the game and gradually improved as he played in high school. In his junior season Cooper started attracting the attention of college scouts. One day he got a letter in the mail that turned out to be a scholarship offer from East Carolina.
“I remember getting the letter and reading it and not believing it,” he said. “I gave it to my dad and asked him to read it to me and whether it was real. I was ecstatic about that.”
Cooper didn’t commit right away and the summer after his junior season he went to a camp run by UNC coaches. The Tar Heels weren’t looking for an interior offensive lineman, but the assistant coaches were so impressed that they asked then-coach Butch Davis to find a scholarship for Cooper. When the offer came, he accepted.
His took a redshirt in his true freshman season and, since he knew he wasn’t going to play, he indulged in some things.
“I got up to about 320,” he said. “I was traveling (to road games) and not really concerned about playing because I was redshirting so I’d eat the meals, drink all the Gatorade and eat all the snacks. I tacked on quite a bit of weight.”
When his redshirt freshman season rolled around, Cooper slimmed down about 30 pounds, which he said wasn’t that hard. He won a starting position at left guard and has been entrenched ever since.
Cooper is now on his third head coach, as well as third offensive coordinator and third offensive line coach. He said the transition was easier because offensive linemen are a tight-knit group and they wanted to stay together, even after NCAA sanctions against the program were announced.
He could have left for the NFL, but shoulder surgery in January effectively ended that option. The injury bothered him much of the 2011 season but he played through it. He thought it would be something he would have to endure the rest of his career but the only lingering effect is some occasional soreness.
“My mom said ‘you don’t come out of the game anymore with ice on your shoulder,’ so she’s happy and I feel pretty good,” Cooper said.
While he was rehabbing and regaining his strength, Cooper missed virtually all of spring practice. Fedora did not look at tape of any player when he took over the program, so all he knew about Cooper was by reputation.
When fall camp began, the coach quickly recognized Cooper’s leadership and skill. The way he has played this season has reinforced that feeling.
“He's a 300-plus pounder that can really run and has great feet,” Fedora said. “I mean, he has phenomenal feet, as good as tight ends out there. So he can stay on blocks, he can pull, he can move. He's very intelligent. He can pass block with the best of them. There is really not anything he can't do up front.”
The leadership quality manifests in a low-key way.
“He believes in the goals of the team and truly wants the team to be successful,” Fedora said. “It's not about him. It's about the team and it's about seeing success as an offense and what we do as a team.”
Cooper’s running mates are junior left tackle James Hurst, sophomore center Russell Bodine, senior right guard Travis Bond and senior right tackle Brennan Williams.
Fedora said “those guys have probably been the most consistent group on our football team at this point.” They have protected quarterback Bryn Renner and opened holes for the running game. Gio Bernard gashed Virginia Tech for 262 yards rushing in a 48-34 win last week.
“Gio is one of those guys that all it takes is a little crease and he’s a home run threat,” Cooper said. “I like to call him a complete back, a guy who can hit it up inside, a guy who can make people miss and a guy who can take it all the way.”
Like many people, Cooper had an initial misconception that the spread offense was all about throwing the ball. But once he learned the plays and adjusted to the tempo, he realized otherwise. And the concentration lately has been on running, which Cooper said builds confidence in an offensive line.
As for his own play in the system, Cooper doesn’t go overboard.
“I think I’ve done all right,” he said. “I’m never going to be complacent with my performance and there’s always little things I have to work on, whether it’s my hands or the track I take when I’m going to block people or just being aggressive. This offense has really given me the opportunity to showcase my athletic ability and get out in space.”
The six games remaining on the Tar Heels’ schedule are the final ones in Cooper’s career. Because of the sanctions, there will be no chance to go to Charlotte for the ACC Championship game and no bowl game. But there’s still motivation.
“It’s really an issue of pride,” Cooper said. “And we still would like to win the Coastal Division. Somebody brought up that it may not be (officially) recognized but there’s still playing for each other and trying to reach that team goal.
“I feel like we’re capable of doing very well if we can be consistent and just stay healthy and stay hungry and play physical. I think there’s the potential to win out. We’ve got to focus on ourselves and not worry about who’s across from us, just do the best we can.”
You can be sure Cooper will be doing his best. Fat chance of him doing anything else.
Bill Hass is a long-time observer of ACC sports. His career at the Greensboro News & Record spanned 36 years, from 1969 until his retirement in March 2006. He is now writing "Bill Hass on the ACC" for theACC.com. His weekly columns will keep fans plugged in to the Atlantic Coast Conference.
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