While many Ohio State seniors are playing in their final home games at Ohio Stadium on Saturday, Jonathon Cooper is not among them.
Cooper, who was expected to participate in Senior Day festivities before Saturday's game against Penn State and return to the lineup for the rest of the season after missing all but three games this season with an ankle injury, has instead decided to take a redshirt year and return to the Buckeyes as a fifth-year senior in 2020.
A local product from Gahanna, Ohio, Cooper entered this season with expectations of finishing his Ohio State career on a high note. After suffering a high-ankle sprain in practice less than two weeks before the start of the season, however, Cooper missed the Buckeyes' first four games of the year.
He returned to action in the Buckeyes' fifth game of the season against Nebraska and started at defensive end against the Cornhuskers and in their following two games against Michigan State and Northwestern. He said after the Nebraska game that he still thought he could make “a pretty good impact” this season, but acknowledged that he still wasn't 100 percent healthy.
“It’s never gonna probably feel like my left ankle,” Cooper said of how he thought his right ankle injury would affect him the rest of the season.
Cooper, who recorded just two tackles in the three games he played this year, was ruled out before the Buckeyes' eighth game of the season against Wisconsin and has not played since.
As a result, Cooper remains eligible for a redshirt year, and he has decided to take advantage in hopes of being able to play a full season next year.
Since he has only appeared in three games this year, Cooper could still play in one more game and retain his redshirt eligibility.
While Cooper was expected to start opposite Chase Young all season, the Buckeyes' other defensive linemen have stepped up in his absence. Tyreke Smith, Zach Harrison, Tyler Friday and Javontae Jean-Baptiste have all started games in Cooper's absence, and all should continue to see regular playing time in the defensive end rotation for the remainder of the year.
Entering Saturday's game against Penn State, Ohio State's defense leads the nation with only 216.4 yards allowed per game and 9.8 points allowed per game this season, is tied for second nationally with 42 sacks and ranked fourth nationally with 93 total tackles for loss.
Looking ahead to next year, though, Cooper's unexpected return could provide crucial veteran leadership for a defensive line that will almost certainly lose Young to the 2020 NFL draft as well as fifth-year senior defensive tackles Jashon Cornell, DaVon Hamilton and Robert Landers.
A team captain, Cooper has been with the Buckeyes for every game this season, even when sidelined, and he'll continue to be; Ohio State received waivers from the NCAA for Cooper and fellow injured captain C.J. Saunders so that they could travel with the team all season without counting against the 74-man travel roster when they are unavailable to play.
Already regarded as one of the team's top leaders this season, Cooper will likely be in line to become a two-time captain next year, when he'll have the chance to have the big senior season he thought he could have this year.
One thing that's for certain: Cooper will be grateful for the opportunity to spend one more year wearing the scarlet and gray.
“I don’t take any of this for granted, at all,” Cooper said at Big Ten Media Days. “I am extremely blessed and extremely humbled for this experience, because I know not everybody gets to do this. And I just want to make sure I represent The Ohio State University in the best way possible. Just because I am that hometown kid who grew up here, and now I’m here in Chicago representing that university I love so much.”