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With Big Ten football back, Ohio State DE Jonathon Cooper determined to make most of 2020

Bill Rabinowitz
Buckeye Xtra
Ohio State defensive end Jonathon Cooper (18) gets fired up during warmups before a game against Penn State on Nov. 23, 2019, at Ohio Stadium. The Buckeyes won 28-17. [Joshua A. Bickel/Dispatch]
  • Cooper served on the player committee that met with Big Ten commissioner Kevin Warren.
  • Cooper gave himself only one day to grieve the expected loss of a season when the Big Ten canceled.

Every Ohio State player had much to lose when the Big Ten postponed its fall football season on Aug. 11.

Jonathon Cooper might have been the Buckeyes’ poster child for all that looked lost.

This season meant everything to the fifth-year senior defensive end from Gahanna. He had missed all but four games last year after an ankle injury sustained during training camp. He returned late in the year but chose to sit out OSU's postseason so he could count 2019 as a redshirt season and play this year.

Imagine, then, how distraught Cooper was when the Big Ten announced it wouldn’t proceed with a 2020 season because of the coronavirus pandemic. Well, you can’t.

Cooper is an upbeat person by nature, but this was devastating.

Cooper had been Ohio State’s designated player on the Big Ten’s student-athlete committee that conferred with commissioner Kevin Warren as the conference contemplated not playing this fall. He had pleaded the case with Warren to play this season, and thought his message had resonated.

Though he had heard the rumors about cancellation, Cooper still felt blindsided when the announcement came.

Aug.12 was a day of mourning. Cooper didn’t want to get out of bed. He didn’t want to eat.

But Cooper went back to work the next day.

“I woke up Aug. 13 and told myself, ‘OK, what's next? What are we going to do now, Coop?’ ” he said. “It's just how you handle life. I gave myself a day to get down, but after that, it was really time to get back to work.”

The Big Ten eventually reconsidered and voted last week to attempt a season, after all. Cooper regards it as an opportunity to seize. He will be, he said, a man possessed.

“I am a different person,” Cooper said. “I'm definitely going in dark mode and just really focusing in on giving 100% of my time and my energy toward being the best football player that I can be.

“You guys haven't seen Jonathon Cooper yet. You guys haven’t seen Jonathon Cooper in like two years. So just know I'm ready and I'm coming.”

Cooper hadn’t planned on being a Buckeye in 2020. He had hopes for his senior season a year ago until his high ankle sprain, which required surgery to repair a tendon.

Cooper returned for the Nebraska game on Sept. 28 but was never able to play full-go. He played in two more games before deciding to use 2019 as a redshirt year. He chose to play against Michigan, which meant he was reduced to a very loud cheerleader during Ohio State’s postseason games, the Big Ten championship and the Fiesta Bowl.

He gave an impassioned speech at halftime after Wisconsin stunned the Buckeyes by taking a 21-7 lead in Indianapolis. He had to watch as Clemson ended Ohio State’s dream season in the College Football Playoff semifinals.

“It was really hard,” Cooper said. “I'm not gonna lie. Realizing how hard I've worked and being a captain and being a leader and knowing that I couldn't go out there with my team and having to sit back on the sidelines and watch ... 

"I was screaming and yelling as much as I could, doing everything I could to coach up my guys, but it's different when you're not out there.”

When the pandemic hit in March, Cooper didn’t think at first that the 2020 season could be in jeopardy. As the months wore on, that became more of a possibility. He and OSU women’s soccer player Izzy Rodriguez were selected to the student-athlete committee that met virtually with Warren.

Cooper said he asked Warren why athletes couldn’t make the choice to play and said he felt the safeguards against COVID-19 that Ohio State put in place were sufficient. He told Warren about the effect a decision to postpone the season would have on athletes’ futures, including his own. Cooper said the feedback he’d gotten about the NFL draft is that he might have gone anywhere from the third to the seventh round if he’d chosen that path.

Cooper praised Warren and said he had respect for him.

“Honestly, I don't know anybody else who could take as much of the pressure as he's taken over this time, but he did great,” Cooper said. “And he was honest with me. He told me that if he didn't feel like it was a safe environment for all the Big Ten – because he doesn't just represent Ohio State – he was looking to postpone the season.”

That’s what happened until last week’s about-face.

“I was so happy,” Cooper said. “I was so excited.”

But he knows it will be for naught if he and the Buckeyes don’t have the kind of season they expect. This summer, Ohio State released a video of Cooper imploring his teammates to do everything right on and off the field. Cooper said the COVID-related sacrifices – social distancing, wearing a mask, etc. – is a “minuscule” price to have a season.

A borderline five-star prospect out of high school, Cooper has had a good career at Ohio State, but it hasn’t been quite what he expected it to be. Given a second chance at a second senior season, Cooper vows that this will be the season it all comes together.

“My goal is to be the best defensive end in the country,” he said, “and I really think I can do that. I feel like if I'm fast, I'm strong. I'm tough. I know how to pass rush. I know how to play the run. I feel like you put me in any situation, I can get the job done.

“I am really itching to get out there and really show you what I can be and who I am right now. I'm a totally different player than what I was my junior year, and I definitely want to go out there and show that.”

brabinowitz@dispatch.com

@brdispatch

Ohio State's Jonathon Cooper chases down Nebraska quarterback Adrian Martinez during the Buckeyes' 48-7 win over the Cornhuskers on Sept. 28, 2019. [Joshua A. Bickel/Dispatch]
Ohio State's Jonathon Cooper tries to get to the ball before Michigan State quarterback Rocky Lombardi, left, and running back La'Darius Jefferson on Nov. 10, 2016. [Dispatch file photo]