Underdog mentality fuels WSU's Xavier Cooper

XAVIER COOPER says he understands what it means to be a Cougar. His definition, he told CF.C this week, is proving people wrong, overcoming adversity and cherishing the underdog mentality. He talks to Cougfan.com about that, participating in the Cougs' Pro Day event this week, the decision to opt early for the NFL Draft and more in this wide ranging conversation.

When Cooper (6-4, 296) announced he was leaving Washington State, many thought he was making a big mistake. NFL.com's Gil Brandt wondered if he would even get drafted. His junior season saw the redshirt-junior defensive tackle finish with 37 tackles and five sacks. Good numbers to be sure, but not to the level some envisioned coming off his 2013 campaign.

But NFL draft projections are fickle and in recent weeks, the Tacoma native’s stock has climbed in a big way. CBS Senior NFL Draft Analyst Rob Rang's latest projection has Cooper going in the late second or early third round.

In a phone conversation with CF.C this week, Cooper said the post-combine praise has been humbling, but that he also understands there’s plenty more work to be done. This includes showing off his skills for NFL scouts at the WSU Pro Day on Thursday.

Cooper said he won’t be running the 40-yard dash or doing the bench press (where he posted a better-than-expected 4.83 and 29 reps at the combine) but he will going through positional drills.

“I’m going to be honest with you man, this is all kind of crazy for me,” Cooper said with a laugh. “People always ask me if I always had this dream. I didn’t really have it until my redshirt-freshman year at Wazzu. I got out there and I realized I could compete with the best players in the conference.

“My father has always told me that if you’re going to do something, you do your best. I told myself I wanted to go to the NFL and my experience at WSU really helped me get to where I am now. That’s why my decision to leave was so difficult. I have so many great relationships with the guys and coaches. This was the best move for my family, though, and in due time, I’m going to realize I made the right call. “

HIS SHOWING AT the NFL Combine has no question helped him catch the attention of NFL Scouts. This includes the Detroit Lions, who brought him in for a pre-draft visit last week.

“The thing about the combine was that it was more mentally draining than physically draining,” Cooper admitted. “They wanted to test your mental toughness more and see how you would handle yourself. It’s a grown man's game and you have to prove yourself out there.

“Following the combine, teams told me they were interested and are planning on coming to Pullman to see me work out for the Pro Day. I’ve been told I’m rated high on people’s boards, so I need to go out and do well to justify how high I’m able to get drafted. I’m expecting teams from all over the league to come out and see us.”

A lot of squads have told Cooper he projects as a defensive tackle, though he thinks he could made a difference at other positions as well.

“I want to show teams on Thursday that I’m a freakish athlete,” he said. “I feel like I can play tackle, end and even linebacker. I just want to prove that if someone makes the investment in me, I’ll be able to do great things for their franchise.”

It's a business decision, Cooper said.

“This isn’t about proving anything, but it’s more about going out and getting a job,” he said. “This is like any other job interview, where you have to be on your A-game."

COOPER ALSO SAID one of his motivations for being drafted as high as he can be centers around representing Washington State.

“Man, people forget about WSU sometimes because I feel like we’re an under-the-radar team,” Cooper said. “People don’t respect us. I’m telling you our record doesn’t show what we can do. With that being said, I’m in the position now where I’m ready to show WSU is a competitive university. I’m here to rep Coug Nation and fight for a spot.

On his CBS Draft profile page, the player overview intro reads: “Washington State isn't nationally known as an NFL pipeline, but first-round safety Deone Bucannon (Arizona Cardinals) provided some evidence a year ago that the Cougars are regaining their snarl and Cooper could enjoy a similar late rise up boards this spring. It certainly would be a change for Washington State, as Rien Long was the last Cougars defensive lineman drafted into the NFL - and that came back in 2003.”

“Think about it," said Cooper. "Would you rather be overrated or underrated? Guys who are underrated will always play with that chip on their shoulder. They have something to prove. That’s the mindset of being a Cougar. Coming from WSU, I know I have something to prove. I’m working on my craft and I want to get to the league and earn the respect of the players and become elite one day.”

The first round of the draft will take place on Thursday, April 30, the second and third rounds on Friday, May 1 and the fourth through seventh rounds on Saturday, May 2. Only time will tell where Cooper goes, but its clear he’s entering the process with the underdog mentality he’s not only used to, but values.

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