When asked at Big Ten Media Day which stat is most indicative of a defensive end’s success, senior Jonathon Cooper said one word: sacks.
However, the Ohio State starting pass rusher has recorded just 5.5 sacks in his three years as a Buckeye, never finishing better than seventh on the team in that category for a season.
Often overlooked on Ohio State defensive lines stacked with All-Americans and coveted NFL prospects, Cooper has one year left to live up to his one time five-star recruiting status as the Buckeye’s most experienced edge rusher.
“I feel like my career so far has been well, but I know I can bring a lot more to the table,” Cooper said. “I know that I can be a much better player than what I’ve shown, and I’ll take the necessary steps to do that.”
Cooper’s self-critique reflects a player who knows he still has more to prove, but a large factor in his lack of statistical production and recognition boils down to the competition he has faced to make it on the field at Ohio State.
In his freshman year, the Buckeyes’ roster boasted four defensive ends who would eventually be drafted in the first four rounds of the NFL Draft in Nick Bosa, Tyquan Lewis, Sam Hubbard and Jalyn Holmes.
All four returned in 2017, in addition to the emergence of then-true freshman defensive end Chase Young, the Buckeyes’ 2018 sack leader who was named to the 2019 Nagurski Trophy Watch List Tuesday for the best defensive player in the country.
This past season saw defensive tackle Dre’Mont Jones earn much of the spotlight on Ohio State’s defensive line, as he recorded 8.5 sacks and a first team All-America selection before becoming a third round NFL Draft selection.
Despite being largely overshadowed by a litany of elite Buckeye pass rushers, Cooper said at Big Ten Media Day he is not envious of his teammates and is happy for their accomplishments.
Ahead of the season the Gahanna, Ohio, native hopes to help flip the script for a historically porous 2018 Buckeye defense, a topic that Cooper said will be a relief to put to rest once the season begins in August.
“We don’t ever want to hear that talk about the silver bullets again or ever let that happen again in Ohio State history because that’s not the standard that Ohio State is,” Cooper said.
The 6-foot-4, 257-pound lineman said the defense is playing with a chip on its shoulder, and he is doing his part to improve by working on his techniques and angles, which were elements of his game he said were underdeveloped in years past.
Once the nation’s No. 3 rated defensive end out of high school, a lack of improvement from Cooper and the Ohio State defense in 2019 would not be due to a deficit in talent.
“I said it to the guys on the staff, ‘Do you want a better D-line? Do you want a better secondary? Do you want better linebackers?’ I don’t know that there’s better players out there in the country. If there are, I’d like to see them,” head coach Ryan Day said Thursday.
While Cooper will have more of a chance than ever before to stand out and make plays, he will still have to contend with the up and coming crop of young talent at his position that may earn minutes as well.
Freshman defensive end Zach Harrison, a five star prospect and 2019’s No. 1 prospect in Ohio, possesses prototypical size at 6-foot-6, 255 pounds, and a 4.47-second 40-yard dash on record.
Sophomore defensive end Tyreke Smith has also been a buzzing name that will be in rotation for the Buckeyes after an impressive spring.
Day said he has no problem spreading playing time down the depth chart as long as his players earn it.
“If you look at what we did on offense last year, we rotated those guys a bunch, and a bunch of them are playing in the NFL now,” Day said. “I think we can do that at all positions.”
For Cooper, another deep year at defensive end just means less excuses for a group that he said has no reason not to be this best unit in the country.
Though 2019 appears to be Cooper’s turn to find breakthrough stardom on the Buckeye defense, the academic All-Big Ten performer said finding success on the field has never been about waiting for his opportunity.
“It’s not being patient,” Cooper said. “I was never patient. It’s just finding that confidence in myself and knowing that I am one of the best defensive ends in the nation, and I just need to play like it.”