Josh Cooper pushes for playing time in NFL

Josh Cooper says he still proudly displays his Defensive MVP trophy from the Cotton Bowl when he helped the Rebels beat Oklahoma State 31-28 back on Jan. 2, 2004. Now he wants to help his new team, the New Orleans Saints, win a big championship game as well.

Cooper, a fourth-year NFL defensive end from Marietta, Ga., has been with the Saints since last October, first as a practice roster player and then by December on the active roster.

The Saints made it to the NFC Championship game last season but lost to the Chicago Bears. Cooper hopes this year to take things even further.

It all starts in training camp, which continues for Cooper and the Saints at Millsaps College through Aug. 15.

"Camp's been going well," said Cooper, whose team lost its first exhibition game 20-7 to Pittsburgh Sunday night in Canton, Ohio. "It takes a while to get your feet back under you. It's hot and it's tiring. But camp is to get you ready for the speed of the game."

Cooper played in five games for the Saints the last half of last season, starting one – the Dec. 31 game against Carolina when the Saints had already wrapped up the NFC South Division title. Additionally, he played in two of the postseason games.

Prior to his Saints days, Cooper played for San Francisco after being signed as an undrafted free agent in May, 2004. He had only played in two games in two seasons with the 49ers, so the move to the Crescent City from the City by the Bay was just fine with Cooper.

"It's been a great situation for me," said the 6-foot-3, 265-pound 26-year-old. "The coaches are great, and the players welcomed me in. They're all helping me with what I need help with, and so it's been great."

Cooper says he's come a long way since his Ole Miss playing days, and the road to playing time in the pros has been rough at times. And while he's not quite there yet, he's getting there.

"Coming out of college, I was a smaller guy," said Cooper, who had 39 tackles as a senior for the Rebels, including five sacks and 11 tackles for losses. "Not too many (teams) were happy with my size. I tried to put the weight on and keep my speed and build on that and get stronger. It's been a push, but I feel I am handling it well. There have been a lot of challenges."

Cooper says he plans to keep pushing and moving forward, and he believes being with the Saints is the best thing for him at this point in his career.

"Going to San Francisco was a good situation," he said. "But they ended up switching to a 3-4 (defense), which wasn't my thing. I was trying to get up to 290-295, and that wasn't where I needed to be. So they let me go, and I tried to get my weight back down. I was going back to a 4-3 and getting my stance back correct. So there've been a lot of different things I've had to do. But overall I think going through it all has helped me to understand the game and the league, and know that I have to continue to push forward."

As is the case with nearly all pro players, Cooper knows that while a lot of his future is in his hands, much of it may be out of his control.

"Nothing's guaranteed," he said. "You have to take it every day and approach it as it could be your last. So you have to push every day, because there could be somebody behind you going at it as hard as you are and as good as you are. You have to continue to do well and do what you know you're supposed to do."

Cooper, who says he still gets to Oxford quite a bit and works out in the offseason with some of his former teammates when he's in town, feels a little bit more at home with some Ole Miss players on his team – guys like Deuce McAllister, Kendrick Clancy, and McKinley Boykin.

"It's exciting," he smiled and said. "Some of the other guys on the team joke at us and say ‘Hey man they keep getting all these Ole Miss guys on here. What y'all trying to do?' It's fun to be around guys you played with in college and went to the same school with. You get that bond in college like fraternity brothers or something. It's a great thing to be able to play with those guys."

And a great thing for Cooper that he seems to finally be in a position to get some playing time with a championship contender in the NFL.

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