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2013 NFL DRAFT

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2013 NFL draft: Two UNC Tar Heels taken in 1st round

By Andrew Carter
acarter@newsobserver.com

Jonathan Cooper was once too heavy to play Pop Warner football, too unskilled to play a meaningful role for his middle school team and then too unknown to draw attention from major college programs. All the while, though, he kept his lifelong dream of becoming an NFL player alive.

Cooper, the All-American offensive lineman from North Carolina, realized that dream Thursday night when the Arizona Cardinals selected him with the seventh pick in the NFL draft. Cooper was the first player from a North Carolina school to be selected in this year’s draft.

His teammate at UNC, Sylvester Williams, became the second area player to be selected. The Denver Broncos selected Williams, a defensive tackle, late in the first round with the 28th pick.

Both Cooper and Williams followed unlikely paths into the NFL. Williams barely graduated from high school, gave up football and worked in a factory before returning to school, at Coffeyville (Kan.) Community College, where he became a highly-recruited player, who later thrived, like Cooper, at UNC.

“I mean, wow,” an excited Cooper said during his conference call with media members who cover the Cardinals. “I’m just so excited.”

The Cardinals should be too, given their need to improve their offensive line. Arizona ranked last in the NFL a season ago in rushing offense, and generated just 75.3 rushing yards per game. The Cardinals also allowed 58 sacks, most in the NFL, and only four teams averaged fewer passing yards per game.

Since the end of last season, Arizona has acquired veteran quarterback Carson Palmer, and protecting him will be a priority. In Cooper, the Cardinals drafted the most highly-rated interior lineman in the draft.

“He provided great leadership and character during his career at UNC and I’m proud of him for earning his degree,” UNC coach Larry Fedora said in a statement about Cooper. “Arizona is getting an outstanding player who is an even better person.”

Cooper said he had heard from his father that the Cardinals might be interested in drafting him, but that he tried to ignore draft speculation.

“I was shocked when they called me,” he said.

Steve Keim, the Cardinals’ general manager, was an offensive lineman at N.C. State in the early 1990s. Cooper told reporters that Keim reminded him of the UNC-N.C. State rivalry before drafting him.

“He said, ‘I’m going to pick you in spite of you being a Tar Heel,’” Cooper said with a laugh. “So I’m grateful.”

Cooper and Williams became the 23rd and 24th UNC players to be selected in the first round of the draft. Six Tar Heels have been selected in the first round since 2008.

When NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell called Cooper’s name, Cooper embraced his family members and then walked across the stage and wrapped his arms around Goodell.

“Some of the programs didn’t call back and others said he was too small,” Michael Cooper said earlier this week. “But I guess he proved them wrong. ...”

Carter: 919-829-8944 Twitter: @_andrewcarter
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