INDIANAPOLIS — The former chubby kid from Wilmington is all grown up – and soaring up draft boards.
Former North Carolina standout Jonathan Cooper is one of the top-rated guards, a position that historically gets less first-round respect than Ben Affleck at awards time.
Cooper, a consensus All-American and winner of the ACC’s Jacobs Blocking Trophy, and Alabama’s Chance Warmack are vying to become the first guards drafted in the top 10 since New Orleans took Chris Naeole 10th in 1997.
NFL Network draft expert Mike Mayock called Warmack the best player he’s seen on tape, and said Cooper isn’t far behind him.
That’s rare air for a player who couldn’t make the weight for Pop Warner.
“I was just a fat little kid always getting picked on. I was like, I’m gonna play football,” Cooper said Thursday at the scouting combine. “So I was a water boy for my brother’s Pop Warner team for a couple of years. I was finally able to play my seventh-grade year in middle school, and I was kind of big and soft but I finally learned the game, got some toughness about me, and I was able to excel.”
Cooper was recruited by all the schools in the Carolinas, and his father wanted him to go to Duke.
“My dad was very high on Duke. He loved the education aspect of it, as did I,” Cooper said. “But I felt like it was more than just that. I wanted the academics, the athletics, and the social aspect. I didn’t know if Duke would be able to provide me with all three of those.”
Cooper had a strong senior season, although Larry Fedora’s fast-paced offense had him shedding pounds.
“During the season I’d gotten down to 285 pounds running spread, no-huddle offense. We just about tripled the number of plays we ran in practice,” he said. “It really kind of sped up my metabolism, but now I’m up to 312 and I feel the difference. I feel the power. I’ve got just a little more butt behind me and I’m ready to be more of a physical player.”
The 6-foot-2 Cooper has been eating a pizza-heavy diet and lifting to gain the weight back. He hopes to do 35 reps in the pro bench (225 pounds) here this week.
He jokingly said he was glad to meet Warmack in Indianapolis and see that’s he human.
“After all that I heard about him, they just make him seem unstoppable,” Cooper said. “He’s a big guy. He’s a power player. He gets on his lineman and he usually dominates him.”
“I know there are a bunch of great guards in this draft,” Cooper added. “I love to compete. So if I am drafted first out of the guards I’ll be ecstatic. If I’m drafted high and I’m not the first, I’ll be OK just the same.”