Cooper, who will be a redshirt freshman in 2004, did not feel that he had performed up to par, did not feel that he had worked hard enough for the award and felt that many of his teammates were more deserving.
"I was just shocked because, like I said at the awards banquet, ‘I didn't do a lot,'" Cooper said during bowl practices last December. "I thought some other guys deserved it because I saw a lot of hard work going on."
Wisconsin's coaching staff, though, viewed the situation differently and awarded a player that many feel will be a strong contributor when the Badgers next take the field.
"He made great progress," defensive line coach John Palermo said in December. "He really did a good job fundamentally of making himself a better football player."
"On Tuesdays I did work," Cooper said. "One day out of the week I had a great practice, the rest was pretty easy. It was just Tuesday—I guess Tuesday's practice they liked it a lot.
"The coaches let me know they trust me and they can just count on me to give a little bit of that Tuesday effort. They can count on me to give the guys a look."
It was Cooper's athleticism and explosiveness that was most responsible for garnering rave reviews last season. On the scout team, Cooper was often cast as the opponent's best defensive end or outside linebacker, putting his speed to good use against Wisconsin's top offense. Cooper was proud of the fact that he was a versatile performer on the scout team but he is only expected to play defensive end as a Badger. His ability to make plays all over the field from either position, though, certainly caught the eye of Wisconsin's coaching staff.
"He was the guy who always beat a tackle or ran the ball down from behind or did things of that nature athletically," said Palermo, who added he only plans to play Cooper as an end. "Again, he may not have been the most solid player throughout but he was the guy that probably made more plays and gave the offense a better look from a speed perspective coming off the edge."
Cooper will have every opportunity to make an impression when spring practice begins Friday. Senior defensive end Erasmus James, a potential starter, is still recovering from a hip injury suffered last fall and will not take part in spring practice. Another senior end, returning starter Darius Jones, is coming back from a knee injury and his status for the spring is uncertain. That leaves only one defensive end who received consistent playing time last year—senior Jonathan Welsh.
As a result, Cooper, Joe Monty, Mark Gorman and possibly Joe Thomas, who started the Music City Bowl at end but could move back to offensive tackle, will receive plenty of looks this spring at the end positions as the team maps out its depth chart. Justin Ostrowski, a redshirt freshman, primarily played end during fall camp but was a defensive tackle during bowl practices.
Even if James and Jones (and two incoming freshmen, Mike Newkirk and Nick Hayden) jump into the depth in the fall, Cooper is expected to make an impact at the very least as an edge rusher, particularly in nickel and dime situations, much along the lines of how linebacker Alex Lewis was used last year.
"(Cooper's) a guy that we can put on the edge next year, get the same thing out of him that we've got out of Alex coming off the edge," Palermo said.
But where Cooper is expected to have the greatest impact down the road is as a full-time defensive end, not simply a designated pass rusher. At 6-foot-4, 210 pounds, Cooper has an athletic build that is similar to Welsh. Palermo, though, said, that Cooper is further along at this stage in his career than Welsh was.
"He's much more athletic and football savvy than Jon was," he said. "Jon was a cross country runner that played football. This kid's a football player playing football."
That bodes well for Cooper, who spent last season learning as much as he could from the veteran defensive linemen and just hopes to crack the field this season.
"I always watched the other defensive ends just to see what they do, just to see how really good they are, and I just always just try to watch people, just learn stuff," he said. "I just love watching football.
"They were telling me some things I need to do to work on to have me get better and I just appreciate all of it."
Cooper said he knows he needs to get bigger and expects to work harder this spring and beyond.
"The other d-linemen would be like…‘you've got the easy life now. Next year you are going to be working hard,'" Cooper said.