CHAPEL HILL At 6-foot-3 and 310 pounds, Jonathan Cooper is a mountain of a man, every bit the modern college offensive lineman. He’s also one of the nicest and most sincere people you could ever hope to meet, traits that have always served him well but are even more valuable given the circumstances surrounding North Carolina’s football program.
With all the other turmoil and changes that have swirled through and around the team over the past three years, Cooper’s continuing cheerful presence offers a reassuring modicum of stability. It doesn’t hurt that he’s also pretty good at what he does, a second-team all-ACC pick at left guard the past two seasons and a top prospect at his position for next spring’s NFL Draft.
A handful of his teammates are older than Cooper, who turned 22 in January, but only one has been on campus longer – Devon Ramsay, who redshirted in 2007 and was awarded a sixth year of eligibility due to injury. None have started more games than Cooper. His next start will be his 36th.
“There was a point, even last year, where I felt like I’ll never get too old, I’ll always be the young guy,” Cooper said. “I’ve been here since 2008 and I felt like I’ve always been the young guy.
“Even when I’ve been looked at in higher roles, I just felt like a younger guy. I never felt like an older guy. But this year, it’s kind of real now. My time is almost up here.”
North Carolina has 16 seniors, but only three scholarship recruits remain from the incoming class that arrived in the fall of 2008: Cooper, kicker Casey Barth and linebacker Dion Guy. (Offensive lineman Peyton Jenest and fullback Kenny Owens, who walked on that fall, are still around as well.)
The rest, including Zach Brown, Quinton Coples, Braden Hanson, Robert Quinn, Christian Wilson and Jamal Womble, have moved on, to the NFL or elsewhere.
“When I came to college, that’s what I told people was one of the biggest differences, is how fluid the program is,” Cooper said. “People are coming in and going out all the time. One minute this teammate’s here, the next he isn’t. So we do have a bond. Peyton and I greet each other as ‘08’ – that’s our greeting to one another.”
Cooper was nearly among those who have come and gone. Given the option, like all of North Carolina’s seniors in the wake of the NCAA sanctions and coaching change, to transfer without penalty, Cooper gave it serious thought. He also considered declaring himself eligible for the NFL draft.
But he needed surgery to clean out his left shoulder in January and struggled with the thought of abandoning his teammates on the offensive line. He told his mom he’d finish his degree. And while Wilmington is home, his heart was here. He decided to come back.
“We’ve had a group of guys on the offensive line who not only have good chemistry as a team, but are friends outside of it,” Cooper said. “I feel like that’s been the biggest constant. Even with the option to leave with the coaching change, it was the impact of my teammates and my offensive-line teammates especially that made me stay.”
He is playing for his third head coach, has protected two big-time quarterbacks and blocked for quite a few running backs. He won at Virginia Tech on a Thursday night, a sight not many have seen, but then again, he’s seen just about everything in his time at North Carolina.
He’s made it this far, one of the last remnants of the class of 2008, a survivor.