Desmond Cooper knew his decision to transfer to play football at UNC Charlotte would come with a cost.
Once one of the top high school football players in the country at his position, Cooper was unhappy with how things were working out at Wake Forest, where he had spent his first two years in college.
But if Cooper wanted to transfer to another Division I program, he’d have to abide by an NCAA rule that says a player must sit out one season before he can play again.
And having already missed one year at Wake Forest as a “redshirt” freshman, Cooper knew time was already running short on his college football career.
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Today – a year after sitting out that NCAA-mandated season – Cooper is one of the few upperclassmen in the Charlotte 49ers’ fledgling program, ready to play in the school’s first-ever college football game Aug. 31 against Campbell in Richardson Stadium. A 6-foot-2, 210-pound free safety from Jacksonville, Fla., Cooper has two years of eligibility remaining with the 49ers.
“When you’re accustomed to being out there and playing games every year, it was a little rough,” Cooper said of his second year on the sidelines. “But it’s worked out.”
Instead of playing in the large stadiums of the Atlantic Coast Conference for Wake Forest, Cooper spent the 2012 football season on Charlotte’s practice fields with his new 49ers teammates.
There was nothing easy about it. The 49ers were preparing for games that wouldn’t be played for another year.
But there was a benefit. Cooper, who played in 13 games for Wake Forest in 2011, quickly became one of the team’s leaders. With the majority of the squad composed of freshmen, most of the 49ers had little idea of what it took to play college football.
“He’s been a real big help,” said freshman safety Kariym Gent. “He’s got experience. He’s played in real, actual college football games. He’s really good for asking advice or his opinion. We call him ‘Coach Des.’ ”
The ‘old guys’
Cooper welcomes that distinction.
“For my two years at Wake, I was the younger guy,” he said. “I noticed everything that the older players had done. So I came here and picked up a different role. I’m trying to be a leader on and off the field.”
Cooper is one of several upperclassmen transfers on the 49ers roster. But Cooper and offensive lineman Daniel Blitch (who also came from Wake Forest) are the only players in the group who had to sit out last season. Others – such as receiver linebacker Mark Hogan (Georgia State) and tight end C.J. Crawford (Marshall) have already graduated and are playing their final seasons as grad students. Defensive back Martay Mattox and tight end Dmarjai Devine came from junior college and are not required to sit out a season. Another, receiver Mikel Hunter, was dismissed from the team at Air Force last August and didn’t play in 2012.
Charlotte coach Brad Lambert calls them “old guys.”
“We need these old guys, just to be there to help on the field and in the locker room,” he said. “There’s so much our freshmen don’t know. These guys have played games in college – they know what to expect. They’re a common voice for us. They’re the leaders on this team.”
The “old guys” are sprinkled into a roster that is composed primarily of freshmen.
“I’m the dad of everybody on the offensive line, I guess,” said Blitch, who has two seasons of eligibility remaining. “If somebody has a question about what to do in a certain situation, not only on the field but in school or whatever, I can be almost a big brother.”
Looking for a change
Ranked as one of the top high school prospects in the country in 2009, Cooper played mostly on special teams. After a new secondary coach was hired at Wake Forest in 2012, Cooper reportedly had fallen to third string on the depth chart.
“I was really struggling, trying to figure out where I fit in, where I stood,” Cooper said. “It just wasn’t going well.”
Cooper began looking for a place to transfer.
But he would also lose a second year if he did. Complicating Cooper’s decision to leave Wake Forest was the fact that he had “redshirted” the 2010 season, his first year with the Deacons.
Under NCAA rules, a college player has five years to use four years of eligibility, and some schools, such as Wake Forest, like to redshirt their freshmen to prepare them better for the college game.
The 49ers had a built-in advantage with Cooper.
Lambert is a former assistant coach with the Deacons and was the team’s defensive coordinator during Cooper’s first season in Winston-Salem.
Also, five of Lambert’s assistant coaches are either former Wake Forest assistants or players, as are several members of Charlotte’s football support staff. Included is assistant director of football operations Ben Grobe, son of Wake Forest head coach Jim Grobe.
“It might be a different environment,” Cooper said, “but it felt like I was coming right back home.”