Jonathon Cooper had no time for a clean mouthpiece. Or, even an unused one.
Rather, Cooper simply wanted — nay, demanded — an immediate return to the field.
So what if that meant yanking a mouthpiece away from a teammate and shoving it in his own mouth to comply with Ohio High School Athletic Association rules? Every snap mattered.
“The funniest story, and me and my defensive line coach were just talking about it other day, comes up often,” Gahanna Lincoln coach Bruce Ward told Lettermen Row. “We play a pretty tough schedule with Pickerington Central, Pick-North, Lancaster, Reynoldsburg, and we’re in the middle of a game. Coop got sent out of the game because he didn’t have a mouthpiece.
“So he comes to the sideline, looked at the first kid he saw and said, ‘Gimme your mouthpiece.’ He took the kid’s mouthpiece, put it in his mouth and went back into the game. We kind of looked at each other and said, ‘That kid right there, he’s a different breed.’ He just always wanted to play, and it’s not like it was fourth-and-inches. It was like second down in the middle of the game. We had time to get a new mouthpiece. But he wasn’t missing a play. That’s a testament to who Jonathon Cooper is.”
Cooper now is an elder statesmen among the Ohio State Rushmen, seeking still to consistently play to his consensus top-100 prospect status as a returning starter with 33 career appearances along the defensive front.
By his own admission, he hasn’t always lived up to the hype that accompanied his recruitment. But there is still time for the likely captain to finish on a high note.
“You know, even though I came in with this high expectation or being a five-star recruit and everything, I always pride myself on how hard I work and just the work ethic,” Cooper said during Big Ten Media Days. “It’s not being patient, I was never patient. It was just finding that confidence in myself and knowing that I am one of the best defensive ends in the nation and I need to play like it.”
Standing out among the Rushmen has been no easy task for Cooper during his first three seasons, as first Nick Bosa and then Chase Young ascended to stardom. Still, Ward saw firsthand beginning midway through Cooper’s sophomore year of high school the work ethic Cooper brought nonstop to become a dominant player.
“During the interview process, I did some research and knew [Cooper] was a high-caliber talent, but meeting him in person, I remember thinking to myself, ‘This kid is way better as a person than what people are saying he is as a football player,’” said Ward, who with Cooper led Gahanna Lincoln to the playoffs in 2015. “You could tell he had talent, but then I met him in person and felt like this kid can be a star. Superhero smile, a great kid and he made it easy to coach them.
“A lot of people say it’s hard to coach top-talent kids because they can be primadonnas. But Cooper was our hardest worker and one of our best kids. It allowed the rest of the team to buy in, because our best player was buying in, and it made our job as coaches and new staff a lot easier.”
Despite that backdrop, Ward still coached Cooper hard — and Cooper responded in kind.
“He got offered by Notre Dame during the season, and maybe it was the day before a game,” Ward said. “He wasn’t playing to the best of his ability. I said, ‘You’re not playing to your best ability. Come stand next to me.’ He looked at me and said, ‘Coach, no one has ever done that to me.’ And I said, ‘Welcome to new era.’ He went back out and caused a sack-fumble that won the game for us.
“His mentality is totally different and totally what you want as a player.”
Cooper has worked to harness that mentality and augment his skill-set for his final season in the Horseshoe.
“I feel like my career so far has been well, but I know that I can bring a lot more to the table,” said the 6-foot-4, 257-pounder. “I know that I can be a much better player than what I’ve shown and I’ve taken the necessary steps to do that. I’ve worked extremely hard to improve my game and I think, I’m pretty sure this season I will show not only myself but teammates and my ‘Rushmen’ the player that I’m supposed to be.”
It’s more than lip-service from the guy who just needs the closest mouthpiece to get to work on the field.