Illinois believed in Ralph Cooper when others didn't. The graduate of Fairfield Central High School in Winnsboro, South Carolina, was considered an inch or two shorter than ideal by local powerhouses, so he chose the Illini. He is determined to prove the naysayers wrong.
"It gives me a huge chip on my shoulder. I feel like I'm an underdog since my high school years. I have an underdog mentality in everything I do. Schools like South Carolina and Clemson didn't want me. They just put a bigger chip on my shoulder every day. I wish we could play them."
He is excited to be on the field as a freshman.
"It feels good to be playing. I can only get better every day. I'm just trying to get better. There's always room for improvement. I'm not settling for it."
It takes most freshmen a semester or two to learn the playbook, but not Cooper.
"I picked up our playbook pretty quick. I came from a high school with a complex defense, so it wasn't a big adjustment learning the technology and the different techniques. It's kind of different though."
The Broadcast Journalism major was a straight "A" student in high school, so he certainly has the brains for the position.
"Yeah, I had good grades. My parents wouldn't let me play football if I didn't."
Cooper describes his game and the things he needs to improve.
"I think I've got pretty good instincts going to the ball. I think I need to get better at pass drops. I'm good at run-stopping, but pass drops are not where I want them to be."
Does his height hinder him on pass defense?
"Not really. I've just got to learn and get better. Height doesn't hold me back."
So far, the only thing holding him back is a need to relax and acclimate to the greater athleticism in college.
"At first it was (difficult to adjust). The speed was faster because I wasn't sure of myself. I was second-guessing myself. Now I'm not. Right now I've just got to go play and be a football player."
Cooper has found the college atmosphere much different than his home in South Carolina.
"It's a huge adjustment. It's real diverse around here. I'm getting to know people I didn't used to see back home due to their ethnicity. But it's been a great experience. I love it."
Now that he's comfortable with his team and the campus, the only thing he need wonder about is the winter weather in Illinois.
"I know it's coming. I'm just gonna try to snuggle up and think as warm as possible."
"I think we're coming along pretty good. Ian and J.B. are helping us out a lot. J.B. has a little experience, and Ian has a lot of experience. We're just taking it day by day and trying to get better."
He is also positive about the strength of the Illini defense.
"I feel like we can be one of the best defenses in the nation. We've just got to play together and get on the same page, and we'll be great. It's just the mentality that everybody's on the same page."
Cooper has a bright future regardless of his height. If the Illini keep doing well, he may someday get his wish of playing one of the South Carolina schools.