From even his earliest days, Ohio native Jonathon Cooper could remember loving the game of football and being aggressive at six or seven years old. “I was always a physical kid, I was always running around and I loved hitting people,” Cooper recalls.
The love of the game, the joy of hitting people hasn’t gone away for the redshirt senior defensive end, who played for the team he grew up watching: the Ohio State Buckeyes. After amassing 24 total tackles and three and a half sacks during his final season in the scarlet and grey, Cooper is on the cusp of being drafted in the 2021 NFL Draft. Make no mistake about it, his draft journey has been filled with plenty of trials and tribulations.
“Adversity hits people and you can either fight it and keep being tough through it, or you can let it take advantage of you and bring you back,” Cooper explained. “With me, every time adversity hit, I kept fighting and take it as [it] can make me stronger.”
Through it all, Cooper refused to let setbacks keep him from getting to his ultimate dream of making it to the NFL. Not only is he a fighter in the trenches, but a fighter in life, as well. His story tells the tale.
Betting on Himself
Pee-wee football was a staple for Cooper, who was raised just outside of Columbus, in a town called Gahanna, Ohio. His aggressiveness led him to the defense side of the ball even in his early days. Cooper remembers how much he loved to tackle and make plays on that side of the ball.
“The most important thing that I’ve learned, when I was in Little League, I was always hitting people, hitting people with the ball, go after the ball wherever you can,” he recalled. “Whatever position I was going to play, was going to be on the defensive side.”
In addition to football, Cooper was also a standout on the hardwood floor in high school. While his frame suggested he would be a good post player in basketball, his athleticism allowed him to play outside on the wing as a guard.
He would rebound the ball and push it up-tempo like a modern-day NBA guard. “You [would] see me on a fastbreak, you know, if I get a rebound, I’m pushing, and then [I] hit them with a euro step, dunk on them like Dwyane Wade,” Cooper joked. “I was a decent basketball player, I wasn't overly [talked about] and wasn’t recruited like that, but I was pretty decent at the game.”
That basketball background shows up quite a bit in his pass-rush moves and setting up opposing offensive lineman. Whether it’s the jab steps he incorporates while rushing upfield or using power steps to get offensive lineman off-balance, Cooper says the translation between the two sports is in his repertoire.
“Say you’re at the top of the key, there’s somebody in front of you, and you’re trying to get to the rim, that’s like the rim is the quarterback and the defender is the offensive tackle and you’re trying to get by him,” Cooper explained.
It’s clear that Cooper has an attacking mindset in everything he does, whether it’s sports and even in unexpected circumstances.
Flashback to his freshman year of high school, as Cooper was finishing up his first season on the Lincoln High School football team and preparing for basketball season. His mom would sign him up for an ultrasound screening that unbeknownst to Cooper would leave him with a tough decision about his future in sports.
“They did an ultrasound over my heart, they found some things wrong with it,” Cooper recalled.
“The [conditions] are called WPW (Wolff-Parkinson-White) and SVT (Supraventricular tachycardia).”
Wolff-Parkinson-White, or WPW for short, is a rare syndrome that creates ‘an extra electrical pathway between your heart's upper and lower chambers causes a rapid heartbeat,’ according to Mayo Clinic. Supraventricular tachycardia, also known as SVT, is defined as an abnormally fast heartbeat that can cause rhythm issues to your heart.
At the time of the diagnosis, Cooper said doctors suggested putting a pacemaker in his heart. However, putting one in his heart would have effectively ended his sports career. Instead, Cooper opted for two oblations and two surgeries, which lasted eight and 11 hours respectively. He says the decision was a no-brainer because sports had become such a staple in his life.
“I wasn’t going for that, obviously, so I told them whatever they can do, to fix it, do it,” Cooper said. “Since then, I’ve gotten check-ups and I ended up playing, actually, the end of that freshman basketball season, and ever since then I’ve been great.”
It was a moment that would propel Cooper forward in his playing career, as he would soon become a future five-star recruit and one of the most coveted recruits in his class. With those heart issues behind him, Cooper was ready to leave his mark at the school he grew up watching and rooting for.
Ups and Downs as a Buckeye
The Class of 2016 recruiting class had Cooper rated as one of the top five defensive ends in the country. It was a historic class for the Buckeyes, that included two future first-round picks (Nick Bosa and Dwayne Haskins), along with two other draft picks (Jordan Fuller and Malik Harrison). Cooper was an early enrollee and began taking classes at Ohio State in January of 2016. He would play six games during his freshman season, making his first career sack against Maryland. He would finish the season with six tackles and that lone sack.
Over his next two seasons, Cooper would play in a combined 27 games, taking on a more dominant role in the Ohio State defense. He collected nine and a half tackles for loss, and four and a half sacks in that time frame, while being utilized in a rotational role. By the time his senior season rolled around in 2019, Cooper knew he was ready and determined to take that next step in his career.
“At that time, at that fall camp, I was playing the best football that I ever had and one week before the season started, I’m getting hurt,” Cooper explained. “That was my senior year and I just got elected captain, too.”
It was not how he imagined his senior season would go, suffering a high ankle sprain that required surgery. It would ultimately limit him to four games and after talking with the coaching staff, he made the decision to use a medical redshirt following the regular-season finale against Michigan. Cooper says he didn’t feel like he was at his best health-wise but that didn’t stop him from being a great team leader and supporting his teammates.
That support and love for his teammates led the coaching staff to honor Cooper with the “Block O” inaugural zero jersey before their first game of the 2020 season. The jersey was made in honor of Bill Willis, an Ohio State defensive end from 1942-44, who would later become one of the first African-Americans to play in the National Football League. His number 99 jersey is retired by the Buckeyes for his ‘toughness, accountability and the highest of character.’ Head coach Ryan Day and his staff felt Cooper exemplified those things as well. Cooper says he is most proud of that honor above the rest of his accomplishments in a Buckeye uniform.
“I definitely wanted to make sure I was my best every-time I put on that jersey and for the staff and players to elect me and choose me to wear that, it was just a great honor and probably the biggest honor I have ever received from Ohio State,” Cooper stated.
The stage was set for Cooper to have a memorable 2020 campaign and he not only did so -- he was able to firmly supplant himself as a legitimate NFL prospect as well.
2020 Season and Player Evaluation
A force for the Buckeyes all season long, Cooper would finish the season with a career-high three and a half sacks and play a huge role in the Buckeyes making it to the National Championship game. His two best games would come against Indiana and Clemson, as Cooper showcased his ability to use his hands to disengage, have a plan of attack with his pass rush, convert speed-to-power and play with a relentless motor.
He really explodes out of his stance with natural leverage and violently uses his hands to disengage. When asked about his best traits that will translate over to the next level, Cooper had this to say about himself:
“I feel like honestly I have very good technique use and the use of my hands in my toolbox, with my ability to [use] speed to power, rush the edge and even counter inside...I take pride in rushing the passer and being a physical, tough defensive end and be relentless and keep going.”
Down in Mobile during the Senior Bowl, the 6-foot-3, 257-pound Cooper also saw some time playing in the interior and showed he could have some versatility in his alignment, getting some wins in one-on-one situations and shooting through gaps. A 4-3 base defense or gap scheme defense could benefit from having a player like Cooper as a plug-and-play type role.
Some rapid-fire questions were asked to Cooper about various topics from his playing career. For the hardest lineman he faced, Cooper said Clemson Tackle, Jackson Carman. “He’s a great tackle, he’s big, physical, light on his feet, good use of hands and he’s strong too, so definitely got to shut him down before you can beat him on the edge or hit him with a counter, he’s a pretty patient offensive tackle,” Cooper explained.
His favorite play? The strip-sack of Clemson Quarterback Trevor Lawrence in their semifinal matchup. “The environment, the game, obviously I have had a lot of other sacks but that one definitely sticks out to me, as one of the top ones, definitely the one I was hyped for too.”
Which parts of his game is he working to improve as he prepares for an NFL future? Cooper says he’s been working on playing and moving in space.
“Just to be able to show that I can drop back in coverage and do a lot of versatile things, I’m very athletic and then also rushing the edge, on the offensive tackle, you can always get better at defensive line and studying a lot of tape and making sure I refine my skills and I’m ready.”
Which pass rushers in the NFL does Cooper study to improve his game and learn from? A few of the names he dropped were hidden gems in the NFL.
“A guy I have been watching lately is Whitney Mercilus, great guy, when he’s going, he’s going, I’ve also been watching a lot of Carl Lawson, I use to watch a lot of Cameron Wake, studied him...there’s a lot of great defensive ends in the league, honestly I’m just trying to pick my brain on all of them.”
Even as important as it is for players to match all of the physical tools the NFL teams crave, the player’s ability to be in the film room and always evolving becomes even more vital. The more Cooper saw time on the football field, healthy, the better he improved as a player. From viewing his tape, there are very few boxes Cooper does not check. Medical history aside, Cooper has the want, and desire to be great at whatever he does. It’s truly an underrated mindset to have in a potential teammate.
The journey to be in a position to get drafted has been a long, windy road for the Ohio native. He’s had to endure injury troubles, potentially never playing sports past his freshman season of high school and faced some tough decisions to ultimately bet on himself. That determination and grit are commendable in this very unforgiving sport of football.
The final question posed to Cooper was what would his final pitch sound like to a prospective GM, head coach or team personnel? Here’s what he said. “You’re going to get the best version of me, it’s hard to put into words what I mean...they’re going to get whatever they paid for, I’m going to make sure that they get it all, I’m not stopping, I’m not giving up, nothing is going to stop me from reaching my goals and whatever team takes me, is definitely going to be lucky to have me.”
It appears that his best football is ahead of him. The former five-star recruit, team captain, leader, who pushed through adversity, will make an impact at the next level. He bet on himself, even in times of uncertainty and a team will bet on him to be a part of their future.
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