8. Keanon Cooper | LB | Senior | 6'0” 220 lbs. G TK Solo TFL SK FF PD 12 77 34 6 1.0 2 2 Photo courtesy of the University of Minnesota Athletic Department
One of the most celebrated Gopher recruits in recent memory, much was made of Keanon Cooper’s switch to Minnesota on National Signing Day in 2008. Named to Rivals’ “Big Ten Signing Day Dream Team*” as a safety, Cooper redshirted a year and switched to linebacker.
He has since been a steady and solid presence for the Gophers. For a player who was highly touted coming to Minnesota and who has lettered three times, much has been written about his recruitment, his friendship with the late Gary Tinsley, even how he prefers to wear his jersey. But little has been written about Cooper’s on-field production.
That could change if the senior delivers a stand-out 2012.
* - A note about that “Dream Team”: It hasn’t exactly turned into a who’s who of the Big Ten’s best every Saturday. For example, here is the bulk of the offense (non-linemen):
• Running back Michael Shaw passed the 1,000 yard by one yard at Michigan. In his entire career.
• Fellow running back Terrance Robinson was moved to receiver and has two career catches entering his senior year at Michigan.
• Wide receiver DeVier Posey had a very solid career with Ohio State until his senior year, when he was suspended for 10 games.
• The other wideout, Michigan State’s Fred Smith, was moved to fullback before leaving MSU.
• Tight End Jake Stoneburner has been very good for Ohio State, but he was suspended from the team for the summer.
• The team’s quarterback? MarQueis Gray.
There are some very good players on the list (Mike Adams from Ohio State, for one) and definitely a few guys who are at the least solid contributors. Still, it again shows the difficulty in tabbing 17- and 18-year-olds as future stars or clipboard carriers before they have even reached campus. Too many unknown variables exist.
Also, it seems to show that if you go to Ohio State, you’re probably going to be suspended at some point in your career.
Playing through a wrist injury much of last year, Cooper totaled fourth on the Gophers in tackles with 77 and tallied the second-most tackles for loss. He has since undergone wrist surgery and was held out of spring practice as a precautionary measure. Cooper also dealt directly with the untimely death of Tinsley; Cooper was the person who found Tinsley unresponsive in his bedroom. Emotionally, I have no idea how a 22-year-old will handle such a tragedy and I’d rather not speculate. Instead, I’ll make an awkward transition back to football.
Cooper is one of the fastest Gophers on the team, if undersized a bit at linebacker. The preceding link directs to a blog entry by Phil Miller of the Star-Tribune in which Cooper bested all comers on the team in heads-up sprints. It seems Cooper may have gotten a bit of a Seinfeld head-start to win, but everyone seemed content with saying he was the team’s fastest player. If not, he’s a step behind Troy Stoudermire. Adding to his athleticism, Cooper is a smart player who has been twice named Academic All-Big Ten.
Cooper was sidelined so far this spring while he recovered from surgery, but he will be ready to play this fall. Even though he had to wear a non-contact jersey this spring, Cooper intently followed along at practice with defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys, said Nate Sandell of 1500ESPN, the senior acting as a leader and quasi-coach for fellow linebackers LaMonte Edwards and James Manuel. Cooper is a smart, fast player who will have a lot expected of him. With Mike Rallis moving over to the middle and learning that position, Cooper needs to be a player who is always in the right position and also someone who can help Rallis along with the transition. He will also need to help the rotating cast of Aaron Hill, Spencer Reeves, Edwards, Manuel and any other linebackers who might play the outside position on the other side of the field. Although Cooper is a bit undersized for run defense and one-on-one tackling, his speed allows him to be a great asset for both blitzing and coverage. More importantly, without the wrist injury this year and a hopefully improved defensive unit, Claeys should be able to utilize Cooper on blitzes more often.
The 2011 defense was decent in passing situations, but struggled against the run. Football Outsiders and Bill Connelly ranked* the Gophers rushing defense 93rd out of 120 teams, while the defense as a whole ranked 89th. With two young, underclassmen possibly starting at defensive end and a converted middle linebacker this year, the defense is going to need the few established players to step up in run coverage when possible.
Still, there is evidence that the Gophers’ defense should slightly improve compared to last year, mainly due to an overhauled secondary and more experienced front-four, specifically Ra’Shede Hageman, Ben Perry and Michael Amaefula. If that defensive improvement occurs, Cooper’s leadership on the field will need to be a large part of it.
* - One way Football Outsiders ranks defenses is by a statistic called “S&P,” which is a stat combination, similar to OPS in baseball. It is literally defined as the combination of a defense’s efficiency (“Success Rate”) and its explosiveness (“Equivalent Points Per Play). Taken simply, a team that has a good defense stops the opposing offense a lot and in turn, doesn’t give up a lot of big scoring plays. Here is a more in-depth definition: A defensive success rate is defined by the percentage of plays targeting a defense in which the offense did not have a “successful” play. Equivalent Points Per Play gives each yard line a point value based on the average amount of points that a team can expect to score from that position on the field. The actual stats are then given a point value compared to that assigned point value. For more information about these terms, check out the Football Outsiders glossary.