Learning The Ropes

The freelancing is over for linebacker-turned-rush end Zac Cooper.

When the junior was previously inserted along the line, the idea was to give West Virginia's starters a rest, take a few reps and retire to the sidelines again. The setup worked well, Cooper having a knack for the slot despite spending the majority of his collegiate career playing linebacker. But now, with increased depth in the middle of the odd stack, Cooper has permanently slid into Johnny Dingle's vacated end position – creating new challenges for both himself and opposing offenses.

"It is tough in every aspect," said Cooper, who led Weir High to consecutive state semifinals in his final prep years. "As a linebacker, you already know what the line is supposed to do anyway. But learning the technical parts of it, the blocking and how to rush and things, it's different. You learn something new every day. The hardest is staying low, keeping a low pad level and driving, working with your hands."

A trio of talents not extensively used by linebackers, which aren't forced to shed blocks as often as linemen. Thus, the value of hand placement and other finite details had not assumed the same levels of importance they do now. Cooper is developing those abilities under position coach Bill Kirelawich, who is in a rebuilding mode of sorts after having lost Dingle and All-Big East pick Keilen Dykes. Dykes was able to clog the middle, allowing Dingle to concentrate solely on the rush end slot. WVU will need to find another quality nose tackle – likely sophomore Chris Neild – to better Cooper's playmaking chances and give him better early opportunities while he adjusts.

It has helped that Cooper is facing Ryan Stanchek, the Mountaineers' best lineman. The left tackle is a three-year starter with a nasty streak while on the field. The physicality, combined with Stanchek's superior technique, will push Cooper throughout spring and give him a feel for very high-level line play to come against foes like Rutgers, Auburn, Pitt and Louisville.

"He has to learn to be a lineman now," Kirelawich said. "That will be a little harder on him. He has to learn techniques and how to rush and use his hands and all that. It's not just freelancing. It will be tougher for him. Everything will."

Another issue is that, at 6-3, 225 pounds, Cooper is still lighter than most defensive linemen, making him more susceptible to straight up blocking, or power-on-power challenges. Add in junior college transfer Larry Ford, at 6-5 and 240 pounds, and the pressure will not simply be applied by Cooper, but also be on him to improve throughout spring and summer drills and conditioning. For now, it would seem that Cooper fits better in pure passing downs, while Ford's better bulk can face the run game.

"I've done this before, played defensive end as a high school sophomore," he said. "But the level of play there and here, it's nothing alike. There are so many detail on this level. Right now, everybody is getting it from Kirelawich. And Stanchek, he makes it tough on you every play. He makes you work and put everything you have into it. It takes a bit to adjust. I can work all summer, too, so it's not just spring practice. I have a long way to go, but I also have the time to improve."

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