Meet Your Illini: Cornerback Valdon Cooper

The Fighting Illini football team has employed nine freshmen this season. Among them is an under-recruited cornerback from a small town in Georgia. Valdon Cooper has made rapid progress and is seeing time on defense and special teams. He has a bright future.

Valdon Cooper is pleased to see playing time this fall as a freshman at Illinois.

"Yeah, it's pretty exciting. It's a little faster than I'm used to. It allows you to grow up and enjoy the game. I like it so far."

Actually, he isn't surprised about his rapid advancement. He expected early playing time.

"I realized that I had a good opportunity because I'm a backup for Tavon Wilson. I kind of figured I'd get some playing time."

Of course, he had to earn that time through Camp Rantoul and fall practices.

"I felt pretty good about it. The mental aspect was overwhelming at times, but once I got everything and learned the keys, I was pretty good."

The 5'-11", 175 pounder arrived at Illinois in June. Summer workouts prepared him for college football.

"My summer went well. We lifted, I got stronger, I got faster. I adjusted well to the plays, and I fit in with the program."

The Elberton County, Georgia, product has also adjusted well to a new environment.

"You've just got to grow up. It's a different environment obviously. I'm from a small town. This town's not much bigger, but there's a sense of independence and responsibility. It all goes together."

Does he have a chip on his shoulder from not being recruited by more schools?

"Kind of. I'd like to think of it as a blessing. I was under-recruited. I had a good coach in high school, and I got recruited. I'm not angry about it. I'm humble. It gives me incentive to prove myself."

Cooper explains his assets as a defensive back.

"I think I have pretty good instincts. I'm pretty fast-twitch. I understand coverages, I understand route concepts."

He is working on all aspects of his game, but he thinks one technique may need more work than others.

"I feel like I'm pretty well rounded. If I had to pick one thing, it would probably be coming up on run stop."

Cooper nearly blocked a punt late in the Ohio State game. He is working both on punt return and kickoff teams in addition to cornerback. Every play he sees helps prepare him for when his role expands.

"The experience is always a big thing. I'd like to have more, but now I feel like as a team we're growing. This whole experience is gonna help me out in the future."

The Illini have been inconsistent covering kickoffs. Cooper says a root cause is not always easy to pinpoint.

"I'm not sure. Maybe it was a lack of focus. I know I fell down on one of them. It's just real simple things that can be fixed. It's a challenge every week. We look forward to it, we embrace it. We've just got to work harder."

Is he surprised by the success of the 2011 Illini team?

"I always expect success. That's one reason I chose this school."

Like his older teammates, Cooper wants more wins.

"We're still hungry; we're not settling. Nobody's thinking about the score, nobody's thinking about the statistics. We're all focused on what we have to do."

Cooper, who hopes to major in Kinesiology, has an advocate in his defensive back coach Mike Gillhamer.

"Valdon is probably our fourth corner. He's coming along well. He's a freshman, so he has a ways to go. He's real intelligent and a really good kid."

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