Jonathon Cooper had a decision to make.
He’d just made a big one, opting to redshirt his senior season to return for a fifth. But now he’d have to choose when to make his fourth and final appearance in 2019 to avoid forfeiting a 2020 return.
It came down to Penn State, Michigan or the Big Ten Championship Game.
“I feel like this game would mean more to me and my brothers,” Cooper said. “To end the regular season undefeated. I wanted to make sure that I gave everything I got. Not only is this the rivalry game, but I feel like it’s the last time I really get to play emotionally with my brothers — when it means something.”
The 6-foot-4 defensive end didn’t just play. He started and made a difference against the Wolverines in a 56-27 win, recording three tackles and his first sack of the season.
It wasn’t supposed to take 12 games, though.
Cooper was finally going to get his shot this season after waiting behind a slew of NFL-caliber pass rushers such as Nick Bosa, Tyquan Lewis and Sam Hubbard on an annually vaunted Buckeye defensive line for years.
Slated to start the season opposite Chase Young, Cooper would’ve reaped the potential benefits of opposing teams’ emphasis on neutralizing his teammate.
He was also named one of seven team captains and chosen as one of three players to represent Ohio State at Big Ten Media Days during the summer.
With just 5.5 career sacks under his belt, there was every indication that Cooper would make quick work of playing catch-up and building his NFL portfolio in 2019.
Rather than appearing in opposing backfields to start the year, though, Cooper turned up in the program’s weekly injury report just a day before the season opener against Florida Atlantic, listed as unavailable.
That’s where he spent most of the year, with an undisclosed ankle injury relegating one of the Buckeyes’ vocal leaders to the sidelines for all but three games before Saturday.
“Every single week, whether I’m playing or not, I’m gonna make sure I give everything to this team,” Cooper said. “Everything that I have whether that’s on the field, off the field.”
Cooper remained active while injured, helping coach the Buckeye defensive line through drills before each game, but it wasn’t the breakthrough role he hoped to have in his final year of college football.
It took until what would have been his final home game Nov. 23 at Ohio Stadium against Penn State for Cooper to officially announce that his Senior Day walk wouldn’t take place until the following year.
Cooper didn’t appear against the Nittany Lions, leaving the door open for one more performance for the Gahanna, Ohio, native.
With Ohio State’s No. 1 ranking lending credence to national title aspirations, Cooper could’ve waited, but he said a good week in practice aided in his decision.
“I just felt something inside of me that said this should be the one, and I’m very happy I made that decision,” Cooper said.
He said he didn’t play with the expectation of making a big play, but that’s exactly what he did in the third quarter with Michigan at midfield.
A Wolverine touchdown would’ve put them within two scores, but Cooper blew past a tight end with a blistering first step off the line to get a hand on redshirt senior quarterback Shea Patterson –– enough to drop the Michigan passer and set up a third-and-16 that the team would not convert.
Cooper said it “means the world” that he was able to step up for his teammates, and none of them were happier to see him do it than Young.
“It means a lot. He always told me he wanted to come back for the big one,” Young said. “He came out here. He played very well. I’m proud of Coop. That’s big bro.”
The sack flashed Cooper’s ability, which could be useful down the stretch, as each subsequent Ohio State game will see heightened stakes. None of Cooper’s replacements have more than two years of experience.
But Cooper already accounted for the potential itch to continue the season after his fourth game.
“Before I made my decision, I made sure that I was satisfied with whether I had a really great game or whether I didn’t, that I’m gonna stay committed to my decision,” he said. “Yeah, it could be enticing. Yeah, I could still come back, but I feel like what’s best for me and also the team and just my family would still be redshirt.”