ON CAMPUS A look at the area college sports scene

Friday, August 31, 2012

Cooper a key cog for SCSU football team's playoff hopes

NEW HAVEN — Southern Connecticut State linebacker Jack Cooper hopes the end of his collegiate football career will be in dramatic contrast to how high high school career ended.

Five years ago, Cooper’s Berlin High team was trailing Ledyard 21-14 with 10 seconds to play. Berlin had the ball on the Ledyard 1-yard line as Cooper lined up at halfback. The play call was to hand off to the fullback. The ball was snapped and Cooper set off on his blocking assignment.
That’s when disaster struck.
“It was like right out of a movie,” Cooper said. “The handoff went to the fullback, but he never really got it. He fumbled the ball and that was it. It cost us the Class M title.”
Now a graduate-student, Cooper has one more chance at a championship. After red-shirting his freshman season, Cooper has been a fixture at linebacker for the Owls and enters the 2012 season as the team’s leading returning tackler and its undisputed leader.
At practice his teammates check with him to see where they should line up. After the session is over, coaches get his take on the day’s work.
“He knows what everybody’s doing out there,” SCSU coach Rich Cavanaugh said. “When he’s out there, we’re definitely getting lined up right. He knows the D-line, he knows the linebackers, he knows the secondary. He knows everything.
“He’s exceptional, really. I know when he’s out there that everybody’s going to be in the right place.”
In his 28th season on the SCSU sideline, Cavanaugh hands out kudos about as often as political campaign ads. But Cavanaugh practically gushes when he talks about Cooper.
“He’s just a good person,” Cavanaugh said. “He’s a great student. He’s one of those kids that gets involved in community service. He’s the whole package. You don’t really know the type of person you’re getting when you recruit them. Who comes across bad when you recruit them? But with Jack, the type of person I saw when we recruited him was real.”
While Cooper knows his playing days are numbered, both he and Cavanaugh know there will be plenty more football to follow.
“He wants to be a coach and he’ll be good at it,” Cavanaugh said. “He’s a student of the game and you’re seeing that even more this year. He prepares week in and week out and he’s going to play his very best. He’s a good player and a smart kid.”
Cooper’s role on defense is even more important this season considering the Owls (7-3 in 2011) have to replace seven starters. Cooper played all 10 games last year making 48 tackles, good for eighth on the club.
“We’ve got a young defense,” Cooper said. “We lost a lot of guys from last year, but we’ve got guys who were really ready to play last year and they’re still learning.”
While Cooper has plenty of experience, his partner at linebacker, Nate Tyler, returns from a season-ending injury he suffered in the season opener last year. Cooper said Tyler will be a major force.
“He’s doing good and he’s healthy,” Cooper said. “Nate would have played a lot last year. The linebackers last year were really good. The guys this year are young, but they’re learning and they can run. Our linebackers need to be the focal point of the defense and we’ve got a good corps who are looking forward to doing it.”
The rest of the defense is a bit untested. The secondary picked off 18 passes last season and Steven Teague, a senior from Hamden, will return to the defensive backfield and his ball-hawking ways. He had three interceptions in 2011.
“Things aren’t going to change,” Cooper said. “We have the same blueprint, same philosophy. We’re still going after the ball. Teague’s very good back there and we have (highly touted defensive back Dion) O’Joe and the entire secondary is fast, so we’ll be going for the ball. As long as we follow our assignments we’ll be alright. Since I’ve been here, speed’s been the best thing about our defense. We’re good up front and everybody’s doing their job.”
Southern was picked second in the preseason Northeast-10 Conference poll, trailing only city rival New Haven. Cooper feels the Owls can win the title.
“If we do what we’re supposed to do, study film and practice hard, we definitely can win it,” he said. “We need to say healthy and have some things go our way in games. We’ve got the makings of a really good team.”
And that would give Cooper some pleasant lasting memories.
“It’s funny because (SCSU quarterback Jake Jablonski) was on Ledyard that year,” Cooper said of the 2007 title game. “He still rubs it in. It was a tough one. And it still hurts.”

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