Penn State linebacker Jake Cooper was named after one legend (boxer Jake LaMotta) and wears the number of another (Jack Ham). He also admires Luke Kuechly and aspires to one day be Mike Golic.
But for now he’d just like to hold the fort.
With the Nittany Lions’ linebacker corps decimated by injuries, Cooper, a sophomore, made his second career start last week against Temple, registering five tackles in the 34-27 victory. And according to the depth chart released Tuesday, he remains the first-string weak-side ‘backer heading into Saturday’s game at No. 4 Michigan, a 3:30 p.m. start on ABC.
“I’m very excited for this opportunity,” he said.
Listed as the starter in the middle is Brandon Smith, a one-time walk-on who saw his first extensive duty against the Owls. He picked up for Nyeem Wartman-White, who injured his right knee in the final minute of the first quarter — an injury that ended his season, the school announced Tuesday.
Wartman-White, who slid over from the weak side when Jason Cabinda injured his left hand, also saw his 2015 season end with a knee injury against Temple — in that case to his left one, sustained in the opener.
Manny Bowen is also expected to make his second straight start this week on the strong side. He replaces Brandon Bell, who was on crutches last week.
“We’ve adapted to the situation fairly well,” Cooper said on a conference call with reporters Tuesday morning. “It’s the next-man-up mentality. We’ve taken each other under our own wings. … I think we all are going to rise to the occasion.”
They’re going to have to, because all they appear to have is each other. Cooper is listed as Smith’s primary backup in the middle, and Bowen is listed as Cooper’s main backup on the weak side. Immediately behind Bowen is Koa Farmer, a converted safety.
“This is a tremendous opportunity,” said Cooper, who has made seven tackles this season. “We’re going to continue to grow as a unit, and we’re going to get the job done.”
It’s also a tremendous challenge, given the opponent and the communication issues that need to be ironed out when three newcomers join the lineup.
Cooper, who first saw extensive service against Pitt, admitted that he has some things to work out on his own.
“I’m still in the process of trying to just go and play,” he said. “Playing the full game against Temple helped me a lot. As the game went on I felt more and more comfortable. … I do feel I’m at the point where I’m just going to play fast and play how I know how to play football.”
He comes from athletic stock. His dad, Michael, played quarterback at Central State, and was later a professional boxer. His mom, Yolanda, played volleyball and ran track in high school.
Jake, who like his three siblings (Greb, Ganz and Dempsey) was named for an old-time boxer, played on two state championship teams at Archbishop Wood, in the Philadelphia suburb of Warminster. One of his teammates was Ryan Bates, now a starting guard at PSU.
Then Cooper came to Penn State, and he was handed the No. 33 once worn by Ham, a member of the College and Pro Football Halls of Fame.
“It’s an incredible honor to wear that, tremendous shoes to fill,” he said. “I just hope I’m doing a good job of that.”
There were thoughts of redshirting him last season, but injuries forced him to play right away, in the opener at Temple. He called that “astonishing” and “kind of a shocker.”
His first start came against Georgia in the TaxSlayer Bowl, a game that allowed him to “settle into my own position, settle into playing for Penn State.”
A communications major, he hopes to one day become a sportscaster like Golic, a friend of Cooper’s dad who once played defensive tackle in the NFL and now works for ESPN Radio. But for now Jake studies video of Kuechly, the Carolina Panthers star (“He brings it all the time”), as well as Houston Texans ‘backer Brian Cushing (“a madman”).
For now, he finds himself the first line of defense.