Jamal Cooper does not want to hear the ‘r’ word.
“You can’t replace them,” Cooper said last month. “That’s out of the question.”
‘Them’ is a reference to Erasmus James and Jonathan Welsh, the former University of Wisconsin standout defensive ends who are now in the National Football League.
Technically, Cooper is replacing Welsh in the starting lineup at right defensive end. The third-year sophomore is the Badgers’ best pass rusher heading into fall training camp. Last season, James was not only UW’s best pass rusher, but the most feared end in the Big Ten.
Cooper is one of the many relatively fresh faces that will draw considerable attention during camp. The Badgers have seven new starters on defense.
“Each different story is like, ‘It’s a new guy,’” Cooper said. “And there ain’t no way you can replace nobody. You just got to be out there with whoever you are. You’ve got to bring your own personality, your own game. You can’t go out there trying to replace somebody or you may always fall short.
“I definitely don’t go out there with the attitude that I’ve got to replace somebody. I know what I want to do and I’ve got my mindset of my own standards. Those are much higher than everybody else would be thinking.”
Indeed, Cooper has high aspirations for his level of play.
“To be honest, nothing less than first-team Big Ten,” Cooper said. “That’s the goal, a personal goal I have set for myself. And just making sure that the defensive line play doesn’t drop off. Like, a whole bunch of people are expecting a drop off. That’s one thing that I don’t want to happen. I want the defensive line to still be a strength of this team. That’s something that all the defensive (linemen) want. We still want to be what makes or breaks this team. I think that’s the attitude that we are trying to take on right now.”
UW defensive line coach John Palermo is not one to offer praise prematurely. So what does he think about Cooper setting the bar for his performance as high as first-team all conference?
“Saying it and doing it are two different things so when he does it, I’ll be more than happy to discuss it with you,” Palermo said recently. “At this particular point, can he? Absolutely, but he’s going to have to do it.”
Cooper’s game has been impressive ever since he arrived on campus two years ago. Even as a slightly built bound-to-redshirt defensive end from St. Louis (Hazelwood East), Cooper’s athleticism and skill stood out in practice. Though he is still a slightly built (6-foot-4, 217 pounds) defensive end, Cooper is bound to play a leading role this fall.
“A year ago, per down, he was probably the most productive end that we had,” Palermo said. “If he can go 40 or 50 snaps in a game versus 15 or 20, then he’ll have a chance to maybe reach that goal.”
Cooper has actually put on about 15 pounds since this time last year but his lack of ideal size will continue to be a question mark until he proves he can hold up through the course of a season.
“He’s a good technician, even though he doesn’t weigh much,” head coach Barry Alvarez said. “He plays against 300 pounders all the time but because he’s a good technician he doesn’t get knocked around a lot. He gives you tremendous speed off the corner. He’ll be an outstanding pass rusher.”
Cooper said he spent the summer focusing on gaining strength and size and working on the mental part of the game. Now, with his playing time about to go up dramatically, he feels there is less room for error.
There is also a greater opportunity to put his talent on display. Cooper was the Badgers’ best defensive lineman in spring practices and he has the ability to thrive off the edge. But he brushed aside the suggestion that he was the most important player on UW’s defensive line.
“I may be replaceable,” Cooper said. “We’ve got solid guys right behind me that could easily be starters. So I’m not going to say I’m the most important player at all. I would never say that. But I want to be like the playmaker for this team. That’s what I do want to be, though. I want to be one of the guys that the other people on defense, and just the team overall, can count on. I do want to be that guy.”