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Undersized Cooper hopes to make big impression

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By Eric Edholm

INDIANAPOLIS — If Hall of Fame OG Randal McDaniel could get by in his career by fooling strength and conditioning coaches by slipping rolls of quarters into his pockets before weigh-ins, then North Carolina OG Jonathan Cooper should be fine playing at less-than-prototypical size.

Actually, Cooper — one of the top prospects in the 2013 class — has risen up to 312 pounds with a steady diet of, well, everything.

“Just trying to eat as much as I could,” Cooper said at the Combine on Thursday. “Just trying to eat as much as I possibly could, and it really just turned into eat, eat, eat. Sometimes you have to sacrifice. Maybe it was pizza; maybe not the healthiest things but just get the weight on because I knew I’d work hard enough to get it where I needed to be.”

Welcome to the dog-and-pony show that is the Combine. Every pound (and every bite) is scrutinized, and NFL teams want to know what Cooper weighed last season, what he weighs now and what weight he eventually will play at in the pros.

If it was not for the fact the Cooper dropped to 285 pounds during his senior season with the Tar Heels, running Larry Fedora’s spread, no-huddle attack, he might be mentioned in the same breath as Alabama OG Chance Warmack, who has the chance to be the first top-10 guard selected since 1997 (Chris Naeole, Saints).

“During the season, I got down to 285 pounds,” Cooper said. “We just about tripled the number of plays we ran in practice. It really kind of sped up my metabolism.

“But now up at 312, I do feel the difference. I feel the power. I have a little more butt behind me.”

But not too much, either. Cooper says he still feels he can run and pull with the best of them, and he might be the best offensive lineman in this entire class in space. Still, he has run zone, power and gap blocking schemes in Chapel Hill and feels comfortable doing any of them. Adding the weight, Cooper said, will allow him to do just that — and possibly as a first-round, Day One starter in the NFL.

Another selling point: his versatility. Some pro scouts say that Cooper’s future could be at center, and he says he can handle any of the interior OL positions. Cooper has extensive snapping experience from practice and has spent the past several weeks working on his shotgun and under-center snapping as a way to make him more attractive to pro teams.

Cooper actually has some game experience at center, back in 2010. How’d it go?

“It didn’t go very well,” Cooper said with a smile. “We had our original (starting) center take back over, and I went back to left guard.”

“But I aim to be as versatile a player as I can, whether it’s left guard, right guard or center,” Cooper said. “I hope to improve as a player.”

Guards typically aren’t the sexiest players on the field, and they certainly aren’t drafted high very often. But that’s just fine with Cooper, who wasn’t heavily recruited coming out of high school and who was happy to live in the shadows at second-tier UNC and let his play speak for itself.

“No, it’s not a glamour position,” he said. “(NFL teams) like guys who run power and run it consecutive times, just smash people until they can’t hardly think. So it is not a glamour position, and it is hard to be scouted, but I’m grateful because I have been blessed with the opportunity.”

The irony with Cooper’s less-than-ideal size now is that he once was considered too big to play Pop Warner, with the other kids’ health being the primary concern. Cooper said he has carried a little of that anger, not getting to play early on, at every level of football he eventually got to play.

“I was just a fat little kid always getting picked on,” Cooper said. “I was like, ‘I’m gonna play football. That’s a dream of mine and I want to play.’

“So I was a water boy for my brother’s Pop Warner team for a couple of years.

"I was finally able to play my seventh-grade year in middle school, and I was kind of big and soft, but I finally learned the game, got some toughness about me, and I was able to excel.”

Aside from any future rookie hazing, toting water buckets isn’t in Cooper’s immediate future. He’ll stand toe to toe with the best offensive linemen on Saturday and strut his athletic stuff. Cooper says that he aims to prove to people that his quickness is not his only physical virtue. His goal his 35 repetitions of 225 pounds on the bench press.

“I hope to show that I am a very athletic player,” Cooper said, “but on the bench press I have seen that some people feel like I’m maybe undersized and maybe not as strong, so maybe (I can) put up some good bench numbers and show that I can be a complete guard who can fit in any system.”

Other proof comes in the tape. Cooper regularly can be seen leading the way for RB Giovani Bernard the past two seasons, leading to Bernard’s back-to-back 1,200-yard rushing seasons with double-digit touchdowns, despite Bernard missing two games to injury last season.

One in particular stands out: In a 48-34 win over Virginia Tech last season, Cooper threw a big block, overpowering a defensive lineman in what was supposed to be a simple short-yardage play.

“We weren’t running the ball especially well that game, and we only had a few rushing yards,” Cooper said. “We went for it on fourth-and-1 and we ran a play that was supposed to be a dive, right up the middle, and he broke it for 60 yards and all we needed was one yard for a first down and it was a touchdown.”

Of course, the humble, likeable Cooper deflected the praise, crediting Bernard for the run.

“That might’ve been one of my favorite Gio moments.”

Cooper’s favorite moment could come in the validation of being a top pick, perhaps in the first 32 and maybe, just maybe, in the top 10.

“Whether it’s some sort of record or not, being taken in the top 10, I would be ecstatic,” he said.

And if he plays like he did in college in the pros — at whatever weight he checks in at — the team that drafts Cooper will be just as thrilled.

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