Our 100 Days to Kickoff Series continues with a look at five impact players for the 2018 season. First up is starting center Kenny Cooper, an irreplaceable yet underappreciated part of what Tech’s offense does.
As the offensive line goes, so goes the offense. It’s a universal truth across all levels of football, but it becomes markedly more evident when the offensive line in question is tasked with clearing out a defense that knows exactly what’s coming the majority of the time.
For the majority of the Paul Johnson era, exceptional center play in particular has been a given. Look no further than the fact that Johnson’s first three longtime starters at the position were Sean Bedford, Jay Finch, and Freddie Burden — a trio which amassed 8 All-ACC distinctions and 3 appearances on the Rimington Trophy watchlist between them.
Another thing to note is that we saw shockingly little drop-off from the position after Burden’s departure a season ago, a development we have incumbent starter Kenny Cooper to thank for. The nature of the position precludes him from getting much buzz, but make no mistake: Kenny Cooper will be an impact player in 2018.
A recipient of offseason lower body surgery, Cooper’s status for the 2018 opener remains up in the air. Before there’s even a need to discuss Cooper’s talent as a player, we have to recognize what’s backing him up: nothing! It’s true that tackle Andrew Marshall has experience at center, but being forced to move him to the interior of the line would open up an unfillable hole on the outside. The same is true of the other potential backup, junior Jahaziel Lee, who saw his first action ever at center in the spring game and figures to be the starter at left tackle this season.
Depth is very simply not a strength anywhere on the offensive line, and Cooper will be leaned on heavily if the 2018 season is to be a success. If you don’t believe he’s one of the most important players on the team right now, God forbid you see what happens if he’s gone.
With that in mind, let’s transition to what makes Cooper truly excellent. I’ve selected five plays that I believe showcase the type of player he is from his two toughest matchups of the season: versus Virginia Tech’s Tim Settle and Clemson’s Dexter Lawrence and Christian Wilkins. Bear in mind that these are three of the best players in the country; Settle was a fifth-round pick in the recent draft and a second-team All-ACC selection while Lawrence and Wilkins are a pair of former five-star prospects and future 1st round draft picks (Lawrence in particular is considered by some to be a lock to go No. 1 overall in 2019).
What you see here is Cooper (#55) manhandling one of the strongest defensive tackles in the ACC in Tim Settle (#4). He handles the spin move incredibly well and keeps Taquon Marshall clean on a play that Settle had an opportunity to wreck both off the snap and when Marshall was forced to step back and avoid Parker Braun. He then keeps with the play, forcing all 335 pounds of Tim Settle away from the ball.
(Apologies for leaving “Reporting: DJ Shockley” at the top there. It’s one of few ugly things about that play.)
This next play shows another skill of Cooper’s that other options at center don’t have: the ability to slip off of initial contact to continue blocking at the second level. In the play above, he gets just enough of Settle to set up a great block by Jake Stickler but doesn’t let it impede his route down the field.
Raise your hand if you clicked on this article with the expectation of seeing your 300-pound center go stride-for-stride with Nate Cottrell, by the way. He was positioned well to make a block on any number of Hokies downfield if Cottrell had decided to cut back inside a bit earlier and stuck with the play for nearly 60 yards.
Nothing about the Clemson game was pretty, but Cooper does a nice job of using his leverage to drive back Dexter Lawrence on this play. Parker Braun (likely the best lineman on the roster) comes in late for some (admittedly chop-ish) help, but Cooper is able to drive the best defensive lineman in the country back to make room for a short gain by Kirvonte Benson.
True to the reputation of option linemen, Cooper struggles with pass protection from time to time. Here he takes Dexter Lawrence to the ground in defense of Taquon Marshall, setting up a perfectly-executed pass to the Clemson assistant in the neon hat. Bad weather, folks.
In this final clip, we see Cooper flash a bit of everything I’ve mentioned. He drives back former three-star prospect Jabril Robinson (Clemson sucks at recruiting) and then gets free to follow the play. He makes some nice plays at the second level in both of the game’s I’ve sourced from but can’t quite keep up with Kirvonte Benson to do the same in this play.
You’ve now seen Kenny Cooper perform versus the best of the best! Granted, none of the players above are Champions of Life like Butch Jones’ boys (rest his soul), but they’re alright for our purposes.
Cooper is an incredibly well-rounded player that we are lucky to have and is absolutely critical to the future success of the team. Simply put, he does things for the team from a communication and overall play standpoint that no one else on the roster is equipped to do right now; if he’s not on the field come week one, we’ll have cause for concern. His impact is hard to quantify thanks to the dearth of offensive line stats for college football, but rest assured that a strong season for Kenny Cooper will spark a strong season for the offense as a whole.
Days to Kickoff: 89