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February 22, 2013INDIANAPOLIS--- Former North Carolina offensive lineman Jonathan Cooper has arrived at the annual NFL Scouting Combine this week eager to prove he's worthy of a high selection.
Another All-ACC season this past fall at UNC, combined with his strong performance at the Senior Bowl in January, has risen Cooper's stock to a position where he's likely to be taken in the first round of the annual NFL Draft come April.
ESPN Draft expert Mel Kiper recently had Cooper projected as high as No. 11 overall to the San Diego Chargers (although he's dropped a little since that recent projection), while CBS Sports has Cooper No. 22 overall, the No. 2 player at his position, and a first round projection.
It appears that Cooper and former Alabama standout Chance Warmack (projected No. 18 overall to Dallas by Kiper) are considered by many experts to be the top two guard prospects in this draft, but one thing Cooper has going for him is his ability to play either of the two guard positions, or even center if the right team came calling.
"I aim to kind of try to be as versatile a player as I can. So whether it's left guard, right guard, to center, I want to be able to do that at a professional level," Cooper said Thursday during interviews at the Combine. "Shotgun snap, under center, all of it---I'm just trying to improve as a player."
Cooper measured in at 6-2 1/2, 312 pounds this week, which means he's put on approximately 30 pounds since shedding substantial weight to play the 2012 season in Larry Fedora's high-octane offense in Chapel Hill.
"It actually worked out fairly well (adding the weight). During the season I had gotten down to about 285 pounds running a spread, no-huddle offense. We just about tripled the number of plays we ran in practice. So that kind of really sped up my metabolism," Cooper said. "But now I'm up to 312, and I do feel the difference. I feel the power. I feel I've got just a little more 'butt' behind me, and I'm ready to be more of a physical player."
Despite all the modern nutrition strategies for potential NFL Draft selections, Cooper said that his weight-gain process was as simple as eating everything he could get his hands on.
"(I gained weight) just trying to eat as much as I possibly could. It really turned into just eat, eat, eat. Sometimes you have to sacrifice---maybe it's pizza, maybe not the healthiest things, but just get the weight on, because I knew I'd work hard enough where I'd get it where it needed to be," he said.
With massive, 300-plus pound grinders now the norm in the interior trenches in modern professional football, Cooper had to get his weight up in order to be a high selection.
But his background, which includes playing guard and center in both pro-style and spread schemes, should make Cooper an attractive option to multiple NFL franchises looking for a versatile offensive lineman.
It's a big reason why he'll likely hear his name called the first night of the Draft.
"We had a few 'gap' schemes and 'zone blocking' schemes (at UNC this past season)," Cooper said. "Prior to my senior year, we were a big power team, and even this year we had multiple power plays. So I feel good in a zone scheme or a power scheme. Whatever they ask of me, I feel like I can do it and do it well."
An interior offensive lineman (non-tackle) hasn't been taken in the first ten picks of an NFL Draft in over fifteen years---typically there's value in the late first round and the middle rounds selecting players at this position for pro teams---but Cooper and Warmack are possibilities to break that streak this year.
It largely depends on this weekend's Combine performances, as well as the individual workouts they conduct with teams leading up to Draft night.
"I think I'm very blessed to be playing guard and being as highly-regarded as I am, so I'm thankful for that. But no, it's not a glamour position," Cooper added.
"They (NFL coaches) like guys who can run power and run it consecutive times---just smash people until they can hardly think---so it is not a glamour position, and it is hard to be scouted (as an interior linemen), but I am grateful, because I have been blessed with an opportunity."
"The fun part is the possibility of being drafted. It's been a dream for a long time, and even as a guard, people are like, 'Well, there's no way he can go early. Maybe he'll go third or fourth (round) or whatever."
"But (the fun part) is the possibility of being drafted, and who knows? Possibly being drafted high."
UNC fans are well aware of what Cooper can do, and the folks down in Wilmington (N.C.) won't soon forget the massive holes he created for the running backs at Hoggard High as the Vikings powered its way to the NCHSAA 4-A state title in 2007.
NFL franchises are seeing through their own evaluations that Cooper is a guy that can get out and pull, run out to the second level and block linebackers, and also pass block.
If there's such a thing as a dual-threat interior offensive lineman, Cooper is that guy.
Combined with the fact that's he's capable of snapping and playing center, and you've got a 'total package' type of prospect that could have a long future in the pro ranks if he can stay healthy.
"In-game, my biggest thing, I love pulling and I love getting out in space. Those are two of my biggest things. Whether it's power and getting on a linebacker quickly and trying to crush, him or a screen or pulling. Just getting out in space, I love that," Cooper said.
NOTE: BuckeyeGrove.com reporter Kevin Noon provided the video interview and quotes for this feature