CHICAGO – Whichever three players Ohio State opts to take with its head coach to Big Ten media days gives an indication of who will be looked at as leaders in the fall.
This year, the Buckeyes chose safety Jordan Fuller, wide receiver K.J. Hill and defensive end Jonathon Cooper to accompany first-time head coach Ryan Day in Chicago.
“Jordan is a first-team Academic All-American,” Day said in his opening statement at Big Ten media days on Thursday. “He was a captain last year, leading tackler on our team. K.J. Hill is someone who came back for his fifth year. After sitting with him and his parents, we lost three senior captain wide receivers last year, and him deciding to come back was a huge deal for us. He's 48 catches short of breaking the school record for most career catches at Ohio State. And then Jonathon Cooper, defensive end for us, senior who's played a lot of football for us. He is the epitome of what it means to be a Buckeye. He's a tremendous young man.”
After Day spoke at a press conference followed by an interview session with dozens of reporters, the trio of players spent an interview fielding a wide-ranging selection of questions from the media members in attendance who cover the conference.
Fuller, Cooper and Hill each spent time answering series of questions about themselves. Here are three things you should know about each of them.
This year has been his toughest both mentally and physically
Before Fuller even had the chance to take the field for spring practices in front of his new position coaches, Jeff Hafley and Matt Barnes, he underwent surgery for an injury he has preferred not to disclose.
He's fine now, announcing he was back to 100 percent on Thursday. But that doesn't eliminate the months of work to get back to full health.
“This year has definitely been the hardest year for me mentally and physically,” Fuller said. “Just after the surgery and everything, it was just a lot. But yeah, I wouldn't trade it for the world because now I feel like I'm mentally tougher than ever, and physically.”
Throughout the winter, Fuller said, he had a rough daily schedule.
He'd wake up at 5 a.m. before working out at 6 a.m. Then he'd begin rehab, which he followed by watching film. Finally he'd leave the Woody Hayes Athletic Center for class around noon, and he'd wrap up classes around 7 p.m. Then he'd often head to a student-organization meeting.
“After that you go home and it's like, 'Dang, maybe I should call my friends,' but I've got to go to sleep,” Fuller said. “That's what was draining. The day to day grind. It was hard.”
He learned how much he likes football
In Fuller's off-campus apartment, him sitting on the couch studying or doing homework has become a running joke to his friends. The two-time Academic All-American cares deeply about his in-the-classroom performance.
But Fuller would have done just about anything to get off that couch and onto the field this spring. While sitting out with an injury, he missed football even more than he anticipated.
“It taught me patience and also showed me how much I truly do love the game,” Fuller said. “I love being around it. I was happy I was able to be around it. I love being around it, playing it, just the camaraderie, everything.”
He thinks he'll have more opportunities to make plays in new scheme
Even though Fuller tied Malik Harrison for the team lead in tackles last season, he said he played "just OK." Specifically, he felt like he didn't make enough “game-changing plays.”
With a new scheme implemented by Hafley and Barnes, the free safety believes that will change this fall.
“I haven't played yet. But just watching my teammates out there and just the scheme, it's kind of just putting you in the best position to make plays. And it's just you can put your own flavor on things at times,” Fuller said. “I haven't been able to do that since high school. That's what I was kind of saying. So I'm excited to go out in training camp and try different things out and make mistakes and go get better.”
Fuller mentioned an extra year of experience and increased confidence as additional reasons for that belief.
He takes being a leader seriously
Cooper doesn't lack personality. For much of his hour-long interview in Chicago, he flashed a smile, not hesitating to crack jokes.
That attitude translates to the locker room and onto the field, where he enjoys being the elder statesman at defensive end.
“Just being a leader, showing them the standard, how hard we work and what it takes to be at Ohio State or be a starter,” Cooper said. “I try to show them every day with how hard I work, how I carry myself, how I speak and how I talk to others. They let me know I do a pretty good job with that. My younger players have a pretty good respect for me, and I appreciate it.”
He thinks he's one of the best defensive ends in the country, and now he needs to prove that
Playing across from Nick Bosa for three games and Chase Young for the rest of the season, Cooper had 13 starts as a junior, but he didn't produce as much as he hoped.
In 2018, he had 25 tackles, including 6.5 tackles for loss and 2.5 sacks. That wasn't enough for Cooper.
“My career so far has been well, but I know I can bring a lot more to the table,” Cooper said. “I know I can be a much better player than I’ve shown, and I’ve take the necessary steps to do that. I’ve worked extremely hard to improve my game, and I’m pretty sure this season I will show not only myself, but my teammates and my Rushmen the player I’m supposed to be.”
After the Gahanna native entered the program as the No. 33 overall prospect and second-rated Ohioan in his class, Cooper earned a starting job in his third season. The second-year starter has one more year in Columbus to reach his potential.
“Even though I came in with this high expectation and being a five-star recruit, I always pride myself on how hard I work and my work ethic,” Cooper said. “I was never patient. It was just finding confidence in myself and knowing I am one of the best defensive ends in the nation. I just need to play like it.”
He believes his technique is reaching his effort level
Cooper has never doubted his motor. His technique, though? That, he says, has always been a step behind. As the final offseason before his senior season comes to a close, he thinks he has begun to close the gap between the two areas.
“I feel like my game has gotten a lot better,” Cooper said. “I was always the guy who would go hard but not necessarily the right direction or with the right technique. I could run ‘4 to 6, A to B’ all day, but where am I going? I feel like I have improved my game by taking the right angles to make plays and to make more production. Taking my technique to a level of just rushing better, fitting the run better, gotten stronger, gotten faster and I feel like my game will be a lot different from what you guys saw last year.”
He and other receivers are having regular throwing sessions with quarterbacks
It would be against NCAA rules for Day, Mike Yurcich and Brian Hartline to lead Ohio State's quarterbacks and wide receivers through workouts during the offseason. Thus, players at both positions have made it a point to have throwing sessions almost every day.
Given the absence of the coaching staff, K.J. Hill said, it has been up to the players to develop a rhythm over the past couple months.
“Just about every day,” Hill said. “Some are acclimated into the workout. We might have to run routes with the quarterbacks after running or something like that. But mainly I'd say every day almost. Or at least just toss it around with them or something. Just throw the ball with them. That's just gaining chemistry, talking about routes, plays, stuff we saw in the spring, running stuff that we saw in the spring, wonder why we disconnected or anything. It's just been us. No coaches.”
He wants to break the catch record, but that's not his main focus
Nobody needs to tell Hill anymore. He now knows he's 48 catches away from breaking the program record for most receptions in Ohio State history. Before media days, though, and before sports information director Jerry Emig told him, he didn't know the exact number.
“I just got reminded earlier about it,” Hill said. “It's really nothing to think about, I just go out there and play and have fun. The rest will take care of itself.”
He could have left for the NFL with Parris Campbell, Terry McLaurin and Johnnie Dixon. But Hill chose to stay for his redshirt senior season, and he mentioned the catch record as one of the many factors in his decision.
“At the end of the day it was. That was another reason (to return),” Hill said. “My name being in the names with all the other great receivers, it's a blessing. I knew I could do that, so that was another reason to come back to Ohio State.”
He's following J.T. Barrett's example as a leader
Justin Fields has spent just over six months in the program, and Gunnar Hoak arrived at Ohio State this summer. Hill has spent four years in Columbus, and whichever quarterback takes the first snap on Aug. 31 will be the third starter in three years to throw him passes.
As the veteran on offense, Hill has harkened back to what he remembers of J.T. Barrett's leadership, hoping to pass it along to Fields.
“Well, for me, I know when J.T. was here, he was the leader,” Hill said. “He was pulling me in to come on let’s go throw routes, let’s go throw routes, let’s do this. When it was Dwayne’s time, it was, 'Hey, we got to do this. Hey let’s go do this.' Now it’s like, 'This is what we got to do because this is how it worked in the past,' type with Justin now. Me being the older guy I got to do what J.T. did for me, pulled me in and told me what to do and showed me the ropes.”