ARLINGTON, Texas — There wasn’t a lot of traffic around Jonathon Cooper’s locker for a symbolic gesture, which is perhaps fitting for the role he was about to unofficially accept on Ohio State’s defensive line.
The rising junior won’t be the headliner for the unit. He’s not the one repeatedly singled out as the next big thing. And even when it comes to spring practice or training camp, odds are that more attention will be paid to the potential of younger guys than on somebody poised to be a crucial contributor after a couple of seasons preparing himself mentally and physically for the job.
That was also the reality for Jalyn Holmes throughout much of his career with the Buckeyes, which is one reason why he sought out Cooper nearly an hour after the Cotton Bowl and wrapped an arm around his shoulder. The veteran pass-rusher was the last guy still wearing his jersey and pads, so Holmes wasn’t exactly in a hurry to pass off the baton to Cooper and close the book on his career.
But there was no confusion in the moment about what it meant. And if Cooper is ready to become the next Jalyn Holmes with all that entails, Ohio State will be better for it.
“We’re passing the torch to him, and I know he’s going to take off with it,” Holmes said. “He’s got a motor and the heart of three men. That’s the most unselfish dude I know, man. The success that you see from me, Sam Hubbard, Tyquan Lewis, it’s because of guys like him.
“You can tell by the way he’s played, next year you’re going to see a guy with No. 18 on his jersey play relentlessly, play hard and he doesn’t get tired for some crazy reason. He’s a special person. To see a dude like that, dudes like Coop always win.”
The Buckeyes, of course, have no intentions of slowing down their winning ways or the success of the Rushmen unit, and Cooper will be a key cog for both efforts heading into the offseason. The stamp of approval from Holmes is a positive sign that Cooper is ready to play a much larger role moving forward after adding 25 pounds of muscle since arriving on campus and fully committing to life at defensive end.
The role Holmes played was usually overlooked by higher-profile, award-winning teammates, and that will be the case for Cooper with Nick Bosa still around to lead the pass rush. There was annual speculation about the next wave of talent joining the program during Holmes’ career, and after Chase Young’s dynamic freshman season and with 4-star Tyreke Smith on the way, Cooper’s development might not get as much attention. But there is no question about the value of having a versatile, consistent, selfless player to lean on in the rotation — particularly when that guy is also blessed with talent and the physical tools to be the primary weapon just about anywhere else.
“I feel like I grew as a player overall this year,” Cooper said. “Just being able to learn from those guys ahead of me, those guys were amazing football players and seeing that, it helps. It has its benefits and its conflicts, you know, but it definitely helped me see how it’s done, honestly. I learned from those guys, and it helped me with my game.
“It was kind of a hard transition to keep that amount of weight on me when they told me I was going to be at defensive end. But now I’ve found a pretty good balance.”
There is still some room to grow for Cooper physically, even now that he’s up to 250 pounds. The improvements in technique are never done with Larry Johnson, either, and he’ll use the next eight months to tweak the mechanics and keep building pass-rushing weapons.
But Cooper already has shown with his limited chances that he can be that kind of force for Ohio State. Despite his light workload off the bench, Cooper finished the 2017 season with a pair of sacks, 3 tackles for loss and a fumble recovery, and he’s about to have a whole lot more chances to make an impact now.
Lewis has graduated. Hubbard is heading off early to the NFL. Once Holmes finally took off his jersey, his career with the Buckeyes was over as well — and there’s no question who is expected to keep the tradition alive.
“I feel like me and Chase will be ready for it,” Cooper said. “We played on and off this entire season, but every time we got in, we produced just as much as the older guys.
“So with us just sitting back and watching them play, we will be just as ready to take on the mantle and the role.”
Holmes didn’t appear to be leaving him with any other choice as the Cotton Bowl celebration wound down.
The role has been handed down. Now it’s time for Cooper to run with it.