Ralph Cooper, an Illinois commitment at linebacker, had a stellar season for his Winnsboro team in South Carolina. He made a good enough impression this year that he was selected to play in the annual North Carolina-South Carolina Shrine Bowl.
"I was excited. I mean, all of high school I was looking forward to playing in the Shrine Bowl, and I finally made it."
The game, played between the best seniors in North Carolina and South Carolina, features national talent such as Lateek Townsend, Jadeveon Clowney, Charone Peake, and many others. Cooper came away with more than just a better idea of where he stacks up against other top talent.
"It was a pleasure. I got not only some good football but some new friends. They were some of the top players in the state and it got me more ready for college football. It was real beneficial."
Cooper was one of a few players who saw action on both sides of the ball.
"Myself, Lateek Townsend, Dexter Staley, and another linebacker from Marlboro played a little wildcat formation. I played a little fullback. I couldn't run with the number they gave me though, so I could only block."
Cooper's team came out decisively victorious, winning the game 42 to 10. Through his experiences, Cooper got a better feel for playing against top players.
"It was pretty good. I felt like I got better and more prepared for the next level."
Despite taking place in Spartanburg, South Carolina, the game took on a frigid feel. Cooper, who will play his college career in the Midwest, said that it gave him a taste of college football weather.
"I really feel like the cold weather helped. One day the wind chill was six degrees, so I got used to it. I don't think it'll be a problem."
Cooper has yet to take his official visit to Illinois but plans to come to Champaign the weekend of January 21, which is shaping up to be a big weekend for visits. His only other visit was during the spring, so he will get an opportunity to examine the campus and program more closely.
"I haven't thought too much about it. But I guess getting to see the fan base to hopefully a win after the bowl game. I'll get to see the environment after the season too."
In the meantime, Cooper has stayed in touch with both linebacker coaches for Illinois.
‘I talk to Coach (Ron) West pretty often. He called me Saturday, and he looks forward to me coming in and playing early. We keep in touch, and don't fall out of contact. I talked to Coach (Dan) Disch a few weeks ago also."
Cooper has long been enthusiastic about the Illinois program. So what will he be looking forward to the most when he arrives?
"Everything, to be honest. I really can't say one thing. I'm excited to come back since I enjoyed myself so much last time. I'm ready for the whole package."