North Carolina left guard Jonathan Cooper might be the last one in Chapel Hill to realize just how good he is.
“I don’t know if I’ll ever get a chance to coach a guy as special as he is,” said Chris Kapilovic, North Carolina’s offensive line coach and running game coordinator. “That’s a little disappointing for me. I only got to coach him for one year. Hopefully I’ve got a lot of years left to coach, but he’s special. The thing about him is, he doesn’t know it.”
First-year coach Larry Fedora knows it.
“I've been coaching 26 years now, and I've not had an interior lineman with his athletic ability,” Fedora said. “So he's pretty special.”
NC State will learn that firsthand on Saturday, when the two rivals face each other at 12:30 p.m. ET.
Cooper is a rare breed at his position, and he is one of the reasons North Carolina’s offensive line has been touted as one of the best in the country this year. He has been the lead blocker for Giovani Bernard, the ACC’s leading rusher, and the No. 3 rushing offense in the ACC. Cooper knows his assignments, is meticulous in his technique, can change directions quickly, and is explosive and strong. He also turned down the option of leaving for the NFL early in part because he promised his mom he would get his degree. He’ll graduate in December as a communications major.
Add to that the fact he’s as humble as he is talented and Cooper sounds almost too good to be true.
“It’s kind of a dream to coach a kid like him,” Kapilovic said. “As good of a football player he is, he’s an even better person. He’s a hard worker, very conscientious. Takes notes in every meeting. Pays attention to every detail. Studies film. As a coach you tell guys what they need to do and very few of them follow that plan 100 percent. He does that and does extra.”
In fact, the biggest knock on Cooper? He’s too nice.
Cooper said he has spent this season working to become more physical so he can finish blocks. He’s also trying to gain some weight so he can block the bigger defensive tackles in the NFL.
“That’s always been one of the biggest critiques on me: Very athletic, strong guy, but just nice on and off the field,” Cooper said. “I’m really trying to work on flipping that switch to nice guy off the field but on the field being not dirty, but finishing on plays and driving people through the whistle.”
Cooper has started 43 games in his career -- the most of any active offensive lineman in the ACC. Some experts consider him the top offensive guard in the nation. Cooper was named to ESPN.com’s midseason All-America team, and should finish the season in that category, too -- a bonus for UNC considering Cooper almost left early for the NFL after former coach Butch Davis and his interim coach, Everett Withers, were fired.
“It was a pretty tough [decision], especially with the staff leaving and all of that stuff, but it was very, very difficult,” Cooper said. “At one point if you’d ask me early on I said I’m definitely coming back. Then it was 50-50, then I’m leaving. What swayed me to stay was I told my mom I’d get my degree. My teammates, my offensive line, I love those guys to death. That made it, and then the real tipping point was I had to get surgery on my shoulder. That kind of made up my mind for me.”
It couldn’t have worked out better for the Tar Heels -- and Bernard.
Cooper was named ACC Offensive Lineman of the Week after the Tar Heels’ 18-14 win at Miami. He played all 84 offensive snaps, graded a team-best 93 percent, had 14 knockdown blocks and didn’t allow one sack. He helped pave the way for Carolina’s 272 rushing yards, which included 177 from Bernard. On the first scoring drive, Cooper had key blocks on three plays that went for 10 or more yards, including the 10-yard touchdown run by Bernard.
Cooper was also the lead blocker on several of Bernard’s long runs in the Tar Heels’ 48-34 win over Virginia Tech. Cooper and the Tar Heels rushed for 339 yards, the first time the Tar Heels have gone over 300 yards rushing as a team since 2004. The 339 yards rushing were the third-most ever allowed by Virginia Tech.
“I've been coaching a long time,” said Fedora. “I've coached some offensive linemen that have been drafted in the top five or six in the country and Jonathan has some skills at the offensive guard position unlike any others that I've ever coached. He has tremendous feet. He has feet like a tight end, a very skilled tight end. There are quite a few tight ends out there that don't have the feet that Jonathan has. He's big and he's very intelligent and he understands what you're trying to do, and he's good at what he does.”
He’ll be the last person, though, to say it.