From his spot on the sideline, Valparaiso coach Bill Marshall could see two things.
First, he saw the ball poked out of the hands of LaPorte’s quarterback, bouncing toward midfield. He then saw his 6-foot-5, 250-pound defensive end, Cooper Jones, sprinting toward it.
Marshall knew what was coming next.
“That’s six,” Marshall reflexively told his defensive coordinator through a headset.
They had seen enough sprints in practice to know Jones isn’t an ordinary 6-5, 250-pound athlete. The newly minted Indiana commit is so explosive, he doesn’t run with his fellow linemen. He’s sprints with linebackers, tight ends, and running backs.
No one could pull even with Jones that night, as big No. 11 pulled away like a gazelle over the plain in a 45-0 win over LaPorte.
“I’m getting shivers just thinking about it right now, but the minute he had his hands on that ball, I knew there was no one that was going to catch him,” Marshall said.
It’s not just inherited speed — his dad played d-line at Notre Dame, and his mom was a softball player at IU. But this is also speed Jones earned. Since freshman year, the three-star d-end has speed-trained with a car tire dragging behind him.
“It’s pretty tough, but it works,” said Jones, who picked up that workout from his father Eric. “I felt myself getting faster. It’s not fun while you’re doing it, but you appreciate it afterward.”
The Hoosiers’ second verbal commitment for the 2021 class had offers from Ohio State, Michigan, Iowa, and Purdue for a reason. He’s not only big and strong, the product of good genetics. Jones is also working with a nonstop motor, which he brought with him the moment he stepped on Valparaiso’s campus.
Noticing that killer combination, Marshall had Jones repping with the varsity as a freshman. He took his lumps, facing off against the likes of Ben Scott, a 6-5, 310-pounder who went on to be a preferred walk-on at Purdue. But by the time he was a sophomore, Jones was ready to wreak havoc on the line.
He’s produced seven and six sacks, respectively, in two varsity seasons. Not overwhelming totals. But press play on his game highlights, and it’s apparent statistics don’t tell the full story. Big No. 11 is constantly putting blockers on their heels, using his long arms and quick hands to bull or swim his way into the backfield.
He’s crashing down the line, or chasing down running backs 30 yards downfield. He’s forcing quarterbacks to flee the pocket. He’s all over the field, a man amongst boys, even as a junior in grade.
“The reason stats lie is because teams always did things to make sure Cooper Jones didn’t hurt them,” Marshall said. “And in doing so, Dylan Dingman, our other defensive end, he really reaped the benefits of that (13 sacks). He’s a great player in his own right.
“But even with that, with double teams and chips and things like that, (Jones) still has had two tremendous seasons for us.”
Jones and Dingman were a terrible twosome that helped Valparaiso log eight games of seven or fewer points surrendered in 2019, reaching the Class 5A title game.
While opposing teams have made plans to stop Jones, the Vikings adjusted by moving him all over the defensive line. He has caused problems for offensive tackles, guards, and centers alike. He’s collected 105 tackles in two season, along with seven pass deflections and four fumble recoveries.
“Just the versatility he has to move inside, I think is what also helps sell him,” Marshall said, “because I know in talking with some of those recruiting coordinators and coaches, to be able to go ahead and be an outside rusher and then go ahead on run downs and possibly move him inside, definitely helps with his versatility.”
There is room in Jones’ frame to push toward 270 pounds, given it doesn’t reduce his speed. Along with the commitment of Elkhart’s Rodney McGraw, a 6-5, 233-pound specimen, the Hoosiers are acquiring long, athletic prospects on the edge.
And all three of Tom Allen’s commits for 2021 currently reside in-state, with Bloomington North tight end Aaron Steinfeldt adding his name to the list Friday.
Marshall will vouch for Jones in just about every way. He’s a 4.0 student. On the field, if he picks up a football at the 50 with a full head of steam, he has no doubts in Jones getting to the end zone.
If Jones links up with the right college program, Marshall has no doubts about his ability to run with that opportunity, as well.
“What really sets him apart, other than his size and his physical attributes, is just his motor. He has a continuous motor when he’s on the field, which includes practices, games, and he has just an attitude that’s contagious,” Marshall said. “There’s an excitement about not just life but about football, as well. That’s contagious, and it’s an energy, even when you’re at the end of practice, and you’re doing your conditioning, he doesn’t stop talking. He doesn’t stop motivating. He doesn’t stop leading.”
Jones now feels like he’s found the right person to lead him in the college ranks.
“It’s definitely Coach Allen, everything he believes in, and everything he’s built there,” Jones said. “The culture they have is something I want to be a part of. Just the way he treats everyone, he loves everyone. That’s the motto, LEO (love each other).
“I believe he believes that, that he takes the time to care for each and every one of his players. That’s something I thought highly of, and I thought I could achieve a lot in a system like that.”
(photo courtesy of Kale Wilk, The Times)