Small-town Cooper DeJean demonstrates big-play athletics for Iowa in Big Ten games

Wisconsin Badgers wide receiver Tommy McIntosh (15) reaches out to bring down Iowa Hawkeyes defenseman Cooper DeJean (3) as he walks down Saturday, November 12 at Kinnick Stadium in Iowa City, Iowa running bounced ball in the second quarter of the game at Kinnick Stadium in Iowa City, Iowa, 2022. (Savannah Blake/The Gazette)

IOWA CITY — Cooper DeJean could shake his head and cover his face with his hand, but he couldn’t stop defenseman Kaevon Merriweather from being “gassed” in the depths of Kinnick Stadium in the post-game interview room last week.

«What does Coop not do well?» Merriweather said as he glanced over at DeJean who was standing to the side. “You saw him returning from the punt, athlete. corner, athlete. cash, athlete. You all didn’t even get to see him play the safety. He did it at fall camp. Athlete.”

Athlete is an apt word for DeJean.

DeJean ranks second in the Big Ten with four interceptions, though he mostly plays in a different position in the secondary than he did on the preseason depth chart. He returned two of the interceptions for touchdowns.

The runner-up from Iowa had more punt return yards in a game against Wisconsin than reigning Big Ten Return Specialist of the Year Charlie Jones in their first six games together at Purdue that year.

Iowa football coach Kirk Ferentz’s greatest reluctance to make DeJean a permanent punt returner doesn’t seem to have him elsewhere in the punt return unit.

“He’s doing a great job back there, of course, but the bad news is we’re losing one of our best corners, the guy blocking the gunner,” Ferentz said Tuesday. “Maybe Arland (Bruce) can do that, I don’t know.”

Raimond Braithwaite, Iowa’s director of strength and conditioning, described DeJean as “one of the five fastest guys on the team” prior to the season.

“There is probably no position in the area that he could not play,” said Ferentz on Saturday. “You’d have to change your offense if he was your quarterback, but I’m pretty sure he could be a pretty good running back. I know he could be a really good receiver.”

While much of DeJean’s in-game action took place at cornerback, in practice he also worked on cash and safety.

“He has the ability to play all five positions,” defense coordinator Phil Parker told reporters via Zoom this week.

DeJean has played mostly cornerback out of necessity due to an injury to Terry Roberts.

“We don’t have the luxury now of taking him away from the corner position, which he’s done very well so far,” said Parker.

But Parker could see DeJean playing strong safety, free safety, or cash in the future.

“Is he an Amani hooker guy?” Parker said. “Probably slightly better coverage.”

Another security comes to Ferentz’s mind when discussing DeJean’s “unusual ability” — Micah Hyde, who is in his 10th season in the NFL.

“Micah Hyde is probably the closest thing we might have had,” Ferentz said. “Maybe Desmond (king), but Micah is probably the better range there.”

DeJean just tries to “do what they tell me.”

“I love playing football, so every time I’m on the field, I just enjoy every moment and give it my all,” DeJean said.

Position versatility is nothing new to DeJean. At OABCIG in northwest Iowa — short for Odebolt-Arthur-Battle Creek-Ida Grove High School — he had to play more than just defense.

At various points in his high school career, he played quarterback, wide receiver, cornerback, safety, and even linebacker.

As for any position DeJean couldn’t play, “we never found one,” his high school coach Larry Allen told The Gazette.

“He’s just a natural athlete,” said the OABCIG coach.

His high school highlight videos were filled with 70+ yard touchdowns, interceptions and big hits against Class 2A competition.

He had an interception where he returned the ball to a teammate and ran down en route to an OABCIG touchdown to block for his teammate.

“He just had the wherewithal to know he was being attacked and throw it, and the kid let him go,” Allen said. “He just ran into the field and that’s exactly the kind of player he is – that he didn’t stop the game until it was over.”

A touchdown run by DeJean in the state championship catches Allen’s eye. DeJean held the read option and went left. He then broke all the way from the left end of the field to the right for a game-winning touchdown as the Van Meter defensemen closed in.

“The scale of that play was enormous at the time,” Allen said.

Allen recalls another play from DeJean’s junior year, in which DeJean “wove in and out of traffic” and “went right to left and then right again.”

“We joked that there was a kid who touched him five times and never picked him up,” Allen said.

DeJean’s early success at the Power Five level followed an unusually quiet recruitment. While others expressed interest in DeJean, Iowa was the only FBS school to offer him a scholarship.

“We almost decide for ourselves,” said Ferentz. “We’re not recruiting. But you always ask – and Josey Jewell is another example – ‘Where is everyone?’”

OABCIG’s location — about an hour from Sioux City, 2 1/2 hours from Des Moines, and almost two hours from Omaha — or lower enrollment may have been a deterrent to some college coaches.

“I don’t know if it was because he was a small town kid,” Allen said. “I know he had his eye on Iowa, so I don’t know if that kept schools away.”

But even then his highlights were visible to everyone on the Hudl website.

“Nowadays when there are no secrets, everyone has video,” Ferentz said. “You used to hide boys. You could lose – not lose, but reschedule a film so the coach can’t bring it back and share it with someone else. But those times are over like the last 30 years.”

Whatever the reason, Allen said it was “crazy they haven’t reached out more.”

“Nebraska was at a game to watch another player and Cooper had a really good game,” Allen said. “So he went to visit after that, but it was kind of puzzling that the teams didn’t take any chances on him. … You would think someone would have thought of making him an offer.”

North Dakota State, South Dakota State, Northern Iowa and Illinois State eventually offered DeJean a scholarship, according to 247Sports and Rivals, but the FCS offers came after Iowa’s offer.

“FCS schools really haven’t banged on the door, but you have to believe what you see and also believe what you feel,” Ferentz said.

As Ferentz watched DeJean play basketball, he reached the point where he “can’t deny what you see.”

“If you want to watch his highlight film there, that’s just as impressive as football,” Allen said. “He throws quite a lot of dunks and he just does it effortlessly. … As he entered his high school career, he had his eye on playing basketball in college.”

Looking ahead, the Iowa teammates have high expectations for the underrecruited athlete from small town Iowa.

“Even when he makes mistakes, he always finds a way to hit back and correct those mistakes,” Merriweather said. “You’re going to have a very talented player and I think the ceiling is heaven for him.”

Iowa linebacker Jack Campbell said DeJean was a “special kid.”

“You see it out there on Saturdays,” Campbell said. “I’m excited to see what he’ll do next.”

Just don’t sing that praise in front of DeJean.

“I don’t know if he’s necessarily embarrassed when you give him awards or talk about him, but he’s not one to blow his own horn,” Allen said. “All in all, an all-American kid.”

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