Heading into the beginning of fall camp, one of the biggest questions surrounding the West Virginia defense centered on replacing a pair of starters – Keilen Dykes and Johnny Dingle – on the defensive line.
Regarding the replacement for Dingle in particular, the Mountaineers must find someone to replace the current Kansas City Chief's speed and ability to create havoc in the backfield. Right in the middle of the race for the rights to replace Dingle is Weirton native Zac Cooper.
Cooper, a junior, is finally coming to his own after spending much of his Mountaineer career to this point watching from the sidelines. During the latter part of the 2007 season, though, Cooper came on strong as a disruptive pass-rushing force for his home-state school, culminating with a solid performance in the Fiesta Bowl victory over Oklahoma.
At the beginning of spring drills, Cooper was moved from West Virginia's deep and talented linebacking corps to defensive end, where his speed off the edge could continue to be an asset, only without the abundance of talent standing between him and the field. All was going according to plan until a mysterious heart problem abruptly ended his spring prematurely.
Although he missed the second half of spring drills, nothing – not even the spring scare – was going to keep Cooper off the field for his junior season.
"It's nothing that is going to keep me from playing football," he said of the minor setback. "I never thought for one second that I wasn't ever going to play anymore. It was just something that I had to take care of and if I couldn't take care of it, I was still going to play anyways."
Now, with fall camp nearing its midpoint and the depth chart beginning to shore itself up ever so slightly, Cooper is poised to see plenty of playing time at his new position, thanks in no small part to his willingness to completely immerse himself in the nuances of defensive end.
"It's mostly technique," Cooper explained. "Being in a three-point stance, having the stance right, having your hand placement and all that stuff is a huge difference from playing linebacker."
At 6-3, 250 pounds, Cooper may look just the slightest bit undersized when compared to a traditional defensive end. The former Weir High star makes up for his lack of size with above-average speed and an innate knack for getting to the quarterback. With these qualities in his pocket, Cooper does not feel that his size will be a detriment when going up against bigger tackles.
"It doesn't matter how heavy you are as long as you go out there and you have good technique, know what you're doing and have determination to go out and get better every day, it doesn't matter if you're 230 or 250, you're going to play the same size," he said. "We do speed drills all winter, and when you can put on weight and still keep speed or even get faster, which we do, it really helps a lot in our takeoff and overall endurance during the game."
Speedy, tough and determined. These are likely the three best adjectives to describe Zac Cooper. Might "starter" soon be another? In the not too distant future, the answer to that question will be known.