The third game of the year was different. That third game — at North Carolina — Cooper let loose. He played more aggressively. He had more fun that week of practice, and kept an edge on the field. Cooper was extraordinary that game, tormenting the Tar Heels' offensive line, registering a sack, two tackles for loss and several quarterback hurries.
All that, though, came in less than one half of the football game, before Cooper injured his knee and was lost for the season.
"The third game (when) I got hurt I just had a different attitude when I was out there," Cooper said. "It may be the reason I got hurt. But I think the third game I was playing pretty decent, better than the first two."
When Cooper initially suffered the injury, he did not think he was badly hurt. He thought it was "just a little bruise," he said Saturday, following the Badgers' first of 15 spring practices. It was the first time Cooper had been available to the media since his injury.
"I thought I'd be able to walk right off," he said. "But it didn't turn out that way.
"I didn't know I was hurt that bad. I was just thinking I would be maybe a week or two and I'd be back out."
Cooper had torn his anterior cruciate ligament. He had surgery Oct. 4.
"Everybody gets hurt that plays football," Cooper said. "So you grow from it. You get bigger and better from it."
Saturday, Cooper took part in all of the Badgers' non-contact drills. He will not participate in any contact work this spring, but he will be able to do most of the position drills and skill work while he continues to rehab from his injury.
"No contact during the spring," Cooper said. "It's more just me just getting the feel for just how the new coach (new defensive line coach Randall McCray) is going to do everything and just getting used to that more than anything else."
When Cooper left the Badgers' 14-5 win at North Carolina Sept. 17, his replacement was true freshman Matt Shaughnessy, who proceeded to have a season that earned him freshman All-American honors from Scout.com.
Shaughnessy's season, though, also ended with a torn ACL. He suffered the injury in the Big Ten finale versus Iowa. And in contrast to Cooper, he knew immediately that he was seriously injured.
"All I know is I've never really been hurt that bad before so it is a little different feeling," said Shaughnessy, adding that this was his first significant football injury.
The 6-foot-6, 235-pound athlete said it did not take long, however, for the initial shock to subside.
"Everybody was out there checking me out," Shaughnessy said. "Just the pain at first was what really got me. It didn't really hurt after that so much."
Shaughnessy, who underwent surgery in early December, took part in a very light drill early in practice Saturday and watched some sessions from the sideline in street clothes.
"During spring ball I'll rehab while everybody else is doing their drills," he said. "And I'll watch the instructional part."
Both players said that they have not suffered any setbacks during their rehabilitation.
"Coop's allowed to do drills as long as they are non contact," head coach Bret Bielema said following practice. "I thought he was moving around pretty good. He's about six weeks ahead of where Matt is."
Neither player set a timeframe for when they expect to be 100 percent recovered. They will take it as it comes, but Bielema has said that he feels both players will be able to participate in the Badgers' summer workout program, which begins in June.
When they are at full strength, Cooper and Shaughnessy are the Badgers' best pass rushers. Through their young careers — Cooper will enter 2006 as a junior, Shaughnessy as a sophomore — they have shown the potential to be dominant players.
Both players, though, said their past performances are irrelevant at this point.
"I've got to go out there, prove myself again," Cooper said.
"It's like starting over again," Shaughnessy said. "New season. Like, sure, what you did last season was good, but that doesn't help you become a better player. You've got to get better in the offseason, lifting and running. And now you just have to prove yourself all over again."
Cooper said he has been able to pace himself through his rehab, knowing that the 2006 season did not kick off until about 10 months after his surgery.
"(The training staff) told me there wasn't no rush," he said. "It's basically my pace. They've been real good about that. Like if I'm doing good, let me go and then if I need to slow down, they let me slow down.
"This is what I expected and this is what they expected. So we're right on course with everything."
As a result, there are some weeks where, with his knee feeling strong, Cooper has gone through his rehab with aplomb, and others where he has had to take it easy, or not rehab with the training staff at all.
"It's been a process," he said. "And that's just how I've been taking it: as a process. No rush on nothing. I knew I had a whole bunch of time so I could take my time, do what I want. So I've been liking that and enjoying it."
Shaughnessy said his rehab has been going well, even if it is occasionally a little tedious
"It's a little boring at times but it's going along pretty good," he said.
After a weight lifting period, Shaughnessy said he has treatment every day. He jogs and rehabs his knee with a series of agility drills, using cones and boxes, for instance.
"I just want to come back and be strong and contribute to the team," Shaughnessy said.
Cooper downplayed the importance of being back on the field Saturday, noting that the team was just in shorts, jerseys and helmets, and that he cannot take part in contact work.
The nice part for him was just being around his teammates again.
"(I want to) just get the feel back of the game," he said. "Just get used to being around the guys again. I think that's going to be the (most fun), being around the guys. Because that is the one thing I did miss. When you are not out there, you are more away from the team."