COLUMBUS — Jonathon Cooper was due for a massive season for Ohio State.
The should-have-been senior defensive end was working hard all offseason last year to be a difference-maker and game-wrecker on the opposite side of the defense from Chase Young. But those plans to be an elite pass rusher with Young were derailed when Cooper sustained an ankle injury in the preseason, one that lingered. And lingered. And lingered.
It was such an issue that Cooper took a redshirt year and only appeared in four games last season. He didn’t get to play in the Big Ten title game or the College Football Playoff. It was crushing for the captain who was slated for a breakout campaign after last offseason’s dominant workouts.
“That’s the hard part of this job,” head strength coach Mickey Marotti said. “He had the look in his eye. Even injured, he was a captain. That’s the worst part of this job. You don’t see him every day, and even the football coaches don’t see him every day. Football trainers, athletic trainers, the nutritionist and the strength coaches see him every single day.
“And you see what they put in. You see how much time, effort, you see how much they sacrifice and dedication, all those things, you see it every day. He is such an outgoing, positive, energized, juiced-up leader. I mean, you want to be around him. And then when you see that happen, it’s awful.”
Now, Cooper is healthy and back in the weight room, the same look in his eye present from last offseason. With another year to perfect his craft as an Ohio State defensive end, Cooper is already prepping for a dominant 2020.
Marotti has been training Cooper since the Gahanna Lincoln product arrived on campus in 2016. Marotti has seen Cooper grow into a force on the defensive line, what he was supposed to be last year. But he’s making the most of his incoming final season in Columbus already.
Cooper has been begging Marotti for extra work in the Ohio State weight room since becoming healthy. Cooper understands that he could have played in the Big Ten title game and Fiesta Bowl, but the chance to come back and prove he can play at full speed for an entire season helped him make the tough call to return to Marotti, the Ohio State strength program and the football team for another chance to show what he can truly do.
“It was extremely difficult, and I struggled with the decision, honestly,” Cooper told Lettermen Row when he made the decision to redshirt in November. “But I made it because I feel like it’s what is best for me, my family and the team to give myself the best opportunity to live my dream. Also, I know how good of a player I am, and I want to show that.”
Cooper would have likely still been drafted to an NFL team, and he would have likely had a chance to contribute there next year. Instead, the chance to return and be an All-American candidate while playing with his Ohio State teammates was too much to see him walk to the NFL.
“Part of the reason why this decision was so difficult is the love I have for my brothers and this team,” he said. “You see me on the sidelines and everything I mean to this team even without playing, that means this season hasn’t felt like a waste to me. It’s still about the team and the Buckeyes, and as badly as I want to be out there with them, I’m still here for them in any way they need.”
Cooper was on the sideline for the crushing Fiesta Bowl loss. Although his redshirt made him unavailable for the game, he felt it just as much as the guys who were able to suit up and nearly secure a spot in the national title game.
A sign hanging in the Woody Hayes Athletic Center weight room shows the score of that Fiesta Bowl loss to Clemson. And even Cooper, a likely captain for next season’s title run, is motivated by getting back to that game and winning it in 2020.
“There’s a sign in the weight room — whatever the score was,” Marotti said. “[That motivation] can be as effective as you want it to be based on what kind of team you have.”
Ohio State might not yet know what kind of team it has. It’s too early to tell.
But Mickey Marotti and Ohio State know what kind of player they have returning for a special season next year in Jonathon Cooper.
And with the work he is putting in during offseason workouts already in January, he’s again due for a massive season. This time, he should actually get to have one.