‘Practice makes perfect' is a common saying among many athletes and their coaches. During this daily routine, athletes get the time to prepare for an upcoming contest and coaches are able to determine who is ready to compete. Sometimes, though, practice is not the most enjoyable place to be. Wisconsin redshirt freshman defensive end Jamal Cooper feels this all too well.
"Yeah, I don't get so excited to go to practice," Cooper said with a laugh.
His discontent with practice may be any coach's worst nightmare, but defensive line coach John Palermo knows that this is just the way Cooper is.
"He's just a very low-key person and he uses the term ‘chill' too much for me," Palermo said. "In defense of him on Saturdays he turns it loose and plays hard…so somewhere along the line I gotta get him to practice a little harder which will make him even better on Saturdays."
As for those tactics to motivate Cooper, do not expect Palermo to release them anytime soon.
"I've got plenty of ideas but I'm not going to share them with you. It wouldn't be fit for the press," Palermo said jokingly.
While Cooper may not see practice as the best part of his day, he did comment that he is learning to respect it more because he realizes how it directly relates to his play on the field. This new attitude towards practice has helped him earn playing time in all six games backing up defensive ends Jonathan Welsh and national defensive player of the year candidate Erasmus James and so far, he has not disappointed. During his time he has tallied six tackles, three tackles for 21 lost yards and two quarterback sacks for a net loss of 12 yards.
With teammates like Welsh and James, Cooper has had the unique opportunity to learn within the top defense in the nation, so that he can possibly pick up their production once they leave.
"They've always been there for me, watching out for me," Cooper said. "It's never been a battle of like ‘I'm behind you, I need to protect my spot', everyone on the d-line wants each person to be good regardless. It's just a big family basically and that's something that we pride ourselves on."
First-year defensive coordinator Bret Bielema did not get the chance to watch Cooper last season but he knows that it would be in Cooper's best interest to pick up some of the starting line's practice techniques.
"I think the reason that those guys have had a lot of success on Saturdays is because of the way they do business Sunday through Friday," Bielema said. "I think that's one thing he'll be able to see himself do more and more of if he can practice and do the things that he needs to do to have success on Saturdays."
Besides playing with the defense, Cooper has also had the opportunity to play on special teams; which is rare for a defensive lineman. He is on the punt return team and he has changed his mentality throughout the season about his special teams duties.
"At first I wasn't too hyped to do it but it's something that if I'm not going to be starting on the defensive line, I might as well be good at something," Cooper said.
Before Cooper was filling in on the defensive line or on special teams, he had to watch everything from the sidelines last year during his redshirt season. While it may be exciting for some Wisconsin redshirt freshmen to play in their first collegiate game, especially at Camp Randall, Cooper's low-key demeanor stayed the same.
"It was just like practice to me," Cooper said regarding his first game against Central Florida. "I've played football before and it's just football; that's the way I treat it."
When Cooper came to Wisconsin from Hazelwood East High School in St. Louis, there were questions about if it was the right idea for him to redshirt. With James battling a hip injury last season and the defensive line looking for help, Cooper seemed like a viable option.
One significant thing that prohibited Cooper from entering the rotation, though, was his size. James and Welsh are listed at 263 and 233 pounds, respectively, and have the strength and technique necessary to hold up against the run. At 6-foot-4, Cooper came into Wisconsin at 210 pounds and was told he needed to gain much more weight. Though Cooper is officially listed at 208, Palermo said he has put on 10 pounds. Either way, Palermo remains concerned about Cooper's weight.
"He needs to gain more weight," Palermo said. "He plays bigger than his appearance but if he's going to compete for more than 15 or 20 plays a game, he's going to have to get up to around 225 or 230 and get strong."
Bielema, however, has a different perspective on the weight issue; not just for Cooper, but for any of his players.
"I'm kind of one of those guys that doesn't believe there's an ideal weight for anybody," Bielema said. "Whatever weight you got to play at to get it done, what that is I don't think anyone can put precisely."
One thing that both coaches can come to a consensus on is that if Cooper wants it strongly enough, his future is bright. With Welsh and James playing on Sundays next year, Cooper will be a likely candidate to start next season. The spot, however, will not come without a little practice.
"I'm definitely going to be vying for a starting spot next year when they graduate," Cooper said. "I just want to improve on my overall knowledge and my game speed and just working hard. I want to just keep on getting better and hopefully I'll be out there starting next year."
"He obviously has the abilities to do that but it's something that he's going to have to get in the weight room in the offseason and get a little bit bigger, quite a bit stronger and he's going to have to learn how to compete every time the ball snaps," Palermo said. "If he does that, I don't think there's any question; ability wise he can be a starter."
Cooper productive in reserve
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