For three seasons now North Carolina knew they had a pretty good one in offensive lineman Jonathan Cooper, and now it appears the rest of the country is going to know it as well, as on Thursday, Sports Illustrated named Cooper a preseason first-team All-American.
It's been a while since a UNC offensive lineman was named an All-American, and while Cooper is more worried about trying to win football games his final season at Carolina than win awards, it's a notable accomplishment for the Tar Heel left guard.
"There's a lot of expectations for us this season, kind of turning a new page and starting fresh and just being the best we can be. So there's a lot of that, trying to meet those expectations, play to the best of my ability and not make mistakes, because these coaches will get after you," Cooper told Tar Heel Illustrated this week.
"I'm excited (for the season to start). It's been good. We're working hard. It's pretty hot even though we're practicing in the morning. But I think we've done well."
Cooper comes into the 2012 season trimmer and more agile, thanks to a hard summer in the weight room and on the track with strength coach Lou Hernandez.
Hernandez helped several of Cooper's teammates drop several pounds, and while Cooper isn't necessarily looking to lose weight, he's definitely in quality shape this summer.
"That made a world of difference, especially the getting in shape part. This summer Coach Lou Hernandez did a great job getting us in shape, because that's one of the biggest setbacks. If you're not in shape that's going to be one of the hardest parts to adjust to (playing in the spread offense)," Cooper said.
"I'm actually trying to gain weight, but I'm back to 300 pounds now," he added.
Cooper says it was absolutely essential for the Tar Heel linemen to lose weight in order to maximize their potential in a no-huddle offense that doesn't leave much time for catching your breath.
"As long as we're in shape it (the spread offense) will benefit us tremendously. Because we're spread out it will open up more running lanes. Guys can't just stack guys up in the box against us," Cooper said. "Also once the defense gets tired it will soften them up, and it will allow us to run the ball more, even late in the game. So I feel like we'll only benefit from running this scheme."
"It will also give our receivers, who I always feel like have been great and talented, but now it will give them these running lanes where maybe they do only have to make one guy miss, and they can go all the way for a touchdown. So I'm excited for the potential it gives us."
While getting in shape was a primary focus for Cooper throughout the offseason, he tells us that learning the playbook and getting down the new offense was an even bigger priority.
"I feel like being in shape is one of the things I tend to do fairly well, so my thing was knowing the playbook. I just want to be better at it, so I felt that my main focus was knowing the playbook as best I could," Cooper said.
"The playbook, I feel like we've all picked that up very well. So we've come a long way. I feel like we've come a long way. and getting used to doing all the running, chasing after the ball, and not getting used to standing around. So once we got used to what was expected of us, I feel like we've come a long way."
"It's just knowing it (the offense) so you can do the pace and be ready to work with it, and then just working on the technical aspects during the spring and summer---just getting a small taste of it (the new offense) made it a lot easier for us to adjust to."
"They've done a great job getting themselves ready for the tempo that we have going," said UNC head coach Larry Fedora of Cooper and the Tar Heel linemen.
"It was kind of tough for them to transition, because they're not as used to running it (the spread offense) as much. They're used to getting the call in the huddle and going to the line. But for them, they've done a great job picking it up, hands-down, the offensive linemen."
Cooper, who was named first-team All-ACC a season ago, helped Giovani Bernard become the first Tar Heel running back in 14 years to rush for a 1,000 yards, and the first UNC back in nearly 30 years to rush for 100 or more yards in five straight games.
Now he's paving space for him in an offense that thrives on creating openings and establishing running lanes that can allow a natural runner like Bernard to do his thing.
While Bernard obviously has a chance to shine in the new offense, Cooper is confident that players like Romar Morris, A.J. Blue, and Travis Riley will also make plays for the Tar Heels this fall.
"Gio, his vision is so good that all that extra space, I feel like it will be unreal for him to succeed. So I'm excited. I feel like all of our running backs will excel in it. I feel like they'll all do well. It will help us get them running lanes," Cooper said.
Bernard, for one, is really pleased with the way Cooper and his offensive line brethren have come together in recent months.
"Coop, he's been Coop. He's done a great job every time," he said.
"James Hurst has also done a great job. Brennan Williams has done a good job coming back from his injury, and Russell Bodine is still Russell, doing what he has to do to become the best center in the country. Travis Bond, he's shed off like 20 or 30 pounds. he's done a great job being a guy that can move a little bit more, more agile," Bernard added.
Cooper has been alongside Hurst on the left side of the UNC line for two full seasons, and going into their third season together this fall, they've got a connection that can only be attained from familiarity and experience.
"We're roommates right now for training camp. We're roommates during the season. So it's a blast. I enjoy playing with him," Cooper said of Hurst. "There are times when he won't have to say anything. He'll make a gesture and I'll understand it. So I feel like that's just the chemistry and camaraderie we've built over the time we've played together."
Cooper and Hurst, as well as the other UNC veteran linemen, are working in training camp to mentor and bring along Carolina's young offensive linemen, of which several have a chance to be high-impact players in the coming years after Cooper and others have moved on, likely to the National Football League.
"The guys up front, they're being good leaders and the young guys are being very coachable, so I'm excited about that," Cooper said. "James is mentoring Jon Heck. I'm mentoring Caleb Peterson, and Travis has J.J. Patterson. I feel like we're all just trying to take them under our wing and try to coach them up as best as we can."
"The young guys are really coming along. I'm excited about their progress. We've picked up some great players, if not now, in the future," Cooper continued.
It's a little difficult for Cooper to believe that he's already heading into his final season as a player at North Carolina, and like so many who came before him, it seems only yesterday that he was arriving in Chapel Hill as a freshman.
"It seems like it went fast. During the time it took it get here it went so slow, but now it seems like it was just yesterday. I was talking to all the seniors, talking about how the freshmen had to report to Mangum Dorm our freshman summer. So it's a really bittersweet moment, I'm glad to have come as far as I have, but it is a little sad, and I will miss all these guys."
This final season at Carolina was never about becoming an All-American for Cooper, although the recognition is flattering.
For him, it all comes back to the fundamentals of winning games.
"We always just want to run the ball and keep Bryn (Renner) clean. And if we do that and just know our assignments, then I'll be happy. And win games. That's our main goal. So if we can do all that, I think we'll be happy with ourselves. Just to play to the best of our ability, make big plays and big runs."