New Guard Unleashed

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – The whispers surrounding the potential of Jonathan Cooper began as soon as the Wilmington, N.C. product arrived in Chapel Hill last summer, and the praise has only increased in volume for North Carolina's starting left guard this preseason.

Senior defensive end E.J. Wilson got the ball rolling in July at the ACC Football Kickoff in Greensboro, N.C.

"A lot of people talk about how freakish our defensive players are, but Jonathan Cooper is a freak of nature himself," Wilson said. "He's one of the most flexible offensive linemen that I've seen. He's fast, he's explosive. We tell him sometimes that he needs to come and play defensive line, because it's like he's a defensive lineman stuck in an offensive lineman's body."

While most true freshmen offensive lineman struggle with the physicality of the game in their first year, Cooper indicated on Thursday that he was physically ready to play in '08, but the mental requirements were the primary reason for his red-shirt. Even so, the 6-foot-3, 295-pounder gets a laugh out of his teammates' comments concerning his athletic ability.

"I take it as a compliment," said Cooper, who played the final five games of his high school career at defensive end. "I do pride myself in my athletic ability because there's not a lot of things that I do that well, but my athleticism is one thing that I feel very good about. I just pushed myself so hard last year, when I wasn't able to show the needed mental aspects, so that I could show off that I was a physical athlete. But now, I can put both aspects of the game together and hopefully play like a stellar athlete."

When Cooper modestly discusses his athleticism, he's not just talking about strength and quickness, or stamina and flexibility – he's talking about all of those characteristics. And it's that ability that has moved the red-shirt freshman into the starting rotation at left guard.

"I do a lot of pulling and a lot of screen plays where they let me get out in front," Cooper said. "That's one of the things that I'm excited about. On ESPN, just getting out in front of the running backs and helping them score a big touchdown."

It helps that Cooper is bookended by two veterans in center Lowell Dyer and tackle Kyle Jolly. That pair, along with former right tackle Garrett Reynolds, were instrumental in preparing the freshman to play during his red-shirt season. The seniors still factor heavily into Cooper's ongoing development.

"It means a lot – they spend so much time just breaking stuff down for me," Cooper said. "Just a couple of days ago, I asked them if they would go in the film room after snack and just tell me what I did wrong on some plays. It was a late night – like 9 p.m. or so – but they were willing to do it. And with having two seniors on my sides, if I don't understand something, they'll just make the call and they'll help me out."

Cooper admits to having concerns when the offensive linemen around him starting dropping like flies – seven in all – due to injuries and departures this offseason. But DL convert Greg Elleby has quickly learned his responsibilities at left guard and left tackle, and Cooper describes the improvement seen in true freshmen Brennan Williams and Travis Bond as "amazing."

With five walk-ons, three true freshmen and a former defensive lineman on the three-deep, the exercise and sports science major sometimes feels grizzled and experienced, despite having never played in an actual collegiate game.

"In the meeting rooms, I feel like a veteran," Cooper said. "I'm up in the front with the 1's, and I get to crack jokes and stuff and the coaches not get mad because I've been around a little bit. But when it comes to the games, I still get butterflies. I tell people all of the time that I'm so nervous and that I can't wait just to go against another college team and get a feel for it so I can get this nervousness out."

Those butterflies only have nine days remaining before they will be released against The Citadel on Sept. 5.

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