Jonathon Cooper ready for larger role in Ohio State football's postseason push

Joey Kaufman
Buckeye Xtra
Ohio State defensive end Jonathon Cooper bats away a pass while pressuring Indiana quarterback Michael Penix Jr. on Nov. 21.

When Ohio State entered the college football postseason last December, Jonathon Cooper was healthy but remained on the sideline.

In order to be granted a redshirt year by the NCAA and return for a fifth season this fall, the defensive end from Gahanna was unable to appear in more than four games. He had played in three early in the season while dealing with a high-ankle sprain, then chose to make his fourth game the Buckeyes' regular-season finale, at Michigan.

The decision cost him the opportunity to join OSU for the stretch run, which included the Big Ten championship game and College Football Playoff.

As the Buckeyes were eliminated by Clemson in a heartbreaking loss in a semifinal, Cooper could only watch in anguish.

“To put it frankly,” he said, “it just sucked.”

As the Buckeyes prepare this week to face Northwestern in the conference championship game, with an eye toward landing another spot in the playoff, Cooper will be on the field as one of their top pass rushers, eager to make a mark after being unable to do so 12 months ago.

Back then, Cooper's role was reduced to offering leadership.

“I did everything that I could being a leader,” he said, “speaking up, trying to coach the young guys up out there and just help out the best way I could.”

It was his role as a team captain, and he was happy when the Buckeyes prevailed over Wisconsin in a Big Ten title-game victory that secured a playoff berth. But it will likely be a different feeling if he has a larger hand in similar success for Ohio State on Saturday.

“I probably can't put it into words, or really think about it too much until I'm at that point,” Cooper said. “But that's where all the hard work goes and that's why you've got to keep working and keep watching film and having practices because when that does happen, it'll all be worth it.”

A fifth season once promised the possibility of a full slate of games after Cooper was limited by injury last fall, allowing him to take advantage of the newly implemented redshirt rules.

Due to the coronavirus pandemic that led to a delayed start to the season and a series of canceled games for the Buckeyes over the past month, the script shifted. He has played in only five games, one more than last season.

Despite the circumstances, Cooper has maintained perspective. At one point, the Big Ten had scrapped its season altogether, a reminder of an alternative scenario in which no games would have been held this fall.

“If it was for 12 games or five games, I feel blessed,” Cooper said. “I'm just happy that I got to go out there and play with my brothers at all because nothing's guaranteed for us. Even with the way that it went, I’m just blessed it went this way and blessed that I had an opportunity to do go out there and play.”

Jonathon Cooper, right, takes part in a pregame workout with fellow defensive end Tyreke Smith before Ohio State's game against Indiana.

In five games, Cooper has been impactful, often as a disruptive presence in the backfield. He has 18 total pressures, according to data from Pro Football Focus, tied for the second-most among the Buckeyes, though they have not always translated into bringing quarterbacks to the turf. He has 1.5 sacks this season.

The weeks ahead will be his opportunity to continue the productive stretch in the postseason in which a fourth consecutive outright Big Ten title, as well as a national championship, will be at stake.

The potential of a storybook finish awaits.

“I think it'd be unbelievable for a lot of guys, but Coop is special,” Buckeyes coach Ryan Day said. “He's been in this program for a long time. He's poured his heart and soul into this program and has a lot of respect from everybody here. Always will. It would be great to see him celebrating after the game on that stage.”

jkaufman@dispatch.com

@joeyrkaufman