Jonathon Cooper warms up ahead of a game against Indiana.

Ohio State then-redshirt sophomore defensive end Jonathon Cooper warms up prior to the Buckeyes’ season-opening 49-21 win over Indiana on Aug. 31 in Bloomington, Indiana. Credit: Colin Hass-Hill | Former Sports Editor

Jonathon Cooper will wear a jersey with his name on it in 2020, but with the inauguration of a new Ohio State tradition, the uniform will represent much more than one player. 

Head coach Ryan Day ushered in a new tradition to the Ohio State football culture: the selection of a player who will wear the No. 0 — or Block “0.” Granting the first-time honor to fifth-year senior defensive end Cooper Saturday, the donning of the jersey was implemented to honor former Buckeye Bill Willis, who played for Ohio State from 1942-44.

“The Block ‘0’ jersey is given to the player that best exemplifies the toughness, the accountability and the fight that the people of Ohio share and specifically the fight that Bill Willis exemplified during his career,” Day said in a Twitter video Saturday.  

Willis, who wore No. 99 in his time with Ohio State, broke the color barrier in the NFL when he joined the Cleveland Browns in 1946. His number is now retired at Ohio State. 

The former defensive tackle hailed from Columbus and shares central Ohio roots with Cooper, who is from Gahanna, Ohio. 

Trading in his No. 18 jersey, which signified his Jan. 8 birthday, Cooper said that this honor stands out from his other accomplishments at Ohio State. 

“I know when I wear this jersey, I’m going to take great pride in it and realize that it doesn’t just represent me but all of Ohio State, all of my teammates, all the players that have come and gone,” Cooper said. “I’m going to make sure I’m at my very best every time I put this on.”

Cooper is entering his fifth season with the Buckeyes. His career was prolonged by an undisclosed ankle injury in the 2019 fall camp and a season in which he played in just four games before enacting his redshirt option.

His redshirt 2019 season opened the door for him to return to Ohio State in 2020. 

Cooper said watching his teammates play without him throughout most of last season provided him with motivation heading into the season — which was temporarily put on hold by the Big Ten. 

“Knowing that it can be just taken away from you so quick motivates me even more because you can’t take a day for granted at all,” Cooper said Sept. 18 in a Zoom call. “I love my teammates and I love my brothers. I worked really hard to try and get into the position I’m in, so my motivation isn’t stopping — I would say it’s higher than ever, honestly, just to be the best player I can be, best leader and be everything my teammates need.” 

The returning captain has played in 37 games as a Buckeye — logging 53 tackles and 6.5 sacks in his career. 

Although the task to fill the shoes of former Ohio State defensive end Chase Young, who was selected No. 2 in the 2020 NFL draft, will be difficult, defensive line coach Larry Johnson said there is a leadership value in Cooper returning to the program. 

“He is what you’re looking for in a player. You look in a dictionary and find ‘perseverance’ and that’s Jonathon Cooper,” Johnson said Wednesday in a Zoom call. “He has a chance to have a special year. He is so excited. He’s worked extremely hard to be where he’s at right now.”  

In a lot of ways, 2020 has been a series of unexpected and unprecedented events for Cooper and the Buckeyes. 

Just over two months ago, the Big Ten made the decision to postpone the fall football season — a decision which Cooper said left him and his teammates in both shock and silence. 

“I told him, ‘I can’t explain why this is happening to you.’ I shared some of my life experiences with him,” Day said Aug. 12 in a Zoom call with media members. “Life can take you to your knees. This sport can take you to your knees, and it has to me, but it’ll make him stronger in the end.”

Fast forward more than 60 days and once again Cooper said he was shocked, but this time, Day was able to present an honor that Cooper will be able to carry when he takes the field Oct. 24. 

“Jonathon Cooper represents everything that an Ohio State football player should be,” Day said. “He’s tough. He’s accountable. He loves this university and this state. He’s someone who continually embodies our culture of ‘fight.’ And that’s in everything that he does, on and off the field. I’m proud of Coop; he’s the perfect Buckeye to wear the Block ‘0’ for the first time.”