Clay Henry is the publisher and executive editor of Hawgs Illustrated. He is a voter for the Heisman Trophy and has been inducted into the Arkansas Sportswriters and Sportscasters Hall of Fame.
State of the Hogs: Jon Cooper excited about chance to coach in SEC
Jon Cooper, an assistant coach with the University of Arkansas football team, speaks with members of the media Thursday, February 6, 2020, inside the Fred W. Smith Football Center on the campus in Fayetteville. Ten football assistants participated in the interview process. Check out nwaonline.com/200207Daily/ and nwadg.com/photos for a photo gallery.
There are two constants in the world of college football: the intense networking involved as coaching staffs are assembled, and the extreme paranoia that your systems and playbooks will be discovered.
The latter is not part of this feature. In fact, there were some aspects of the evolution of what will be the new Arkansas offense under Kendal Briles.
Because no one is seeing practices due to the extreme social distancing precautions brought about by the covid-19 pandemic, it reduces the paranoia of the coaches this summer. It didn’t come up in an interview with Arkansas tight ends coach Jon Cooper.
What was discussed was all of the ties that led him to Arkansas as a part of Sam Pittman’s staff. His connections to the two coordinators — Briles on offense and Barry Odom on defense — made him the lead candidate to land in some kind of role in the Fred W. Smith Football Center.
If you dig deep, you can find some Frank Broyles in his background, albeit a real stretch.
Cooper played and coached at Oklahoma for Bob Stoops, a Hayden Fry disciple back to his Iowa days. Fry was the play caller at Arkansas for Broyles during the 1961 season, part of the program’s glory years. Ironically, Fry was one of the coaches in the modern era to highlight the use of the tight end.
The evolution of Cooper from All-Big 12 Conference center to tight ends coach makes sense.
“When I came back from the NFL, Coach Stoops put me with the offensive line as a graduate assistant,” Cooper said. “They broke up the positions with a coach at center/guard and another for tackles/tight ends.”
It’s the same way Danny Ford did it when the Hogs went to the SEC Championship Game in 1995. It’s practical because offensive tackles and tight ends team for double team blocks on the perimeter and spend much practice time together.
“They work together in the run game and pass protection,” Cooper said. “Coaching tight ends is similar to offensive line coaching.”
Of course, there is so much more and it relates to Cooper’s background as a center, too. Many have said the two positions that make the best coaches are quarterback and center.
“For obvious reasons, quarterbacks end up coaching a lot,” Cooper said. “But so do centers. I think my background at center really helps.
“A center has to see so many things. You make the calls for the blocking and protections. You need a good knowledge of the front seven on defense, but you are like the quarterback, you must see where the pressures are coming from.
“And, the center and the quarterback must work as one. I think both quarterbacks and centers make good coaches. And, the center has that unique perspective of what is happening in the trenches.”
Four years in the NFL (with the Minnesota Vikings and Tennessee Titans) provided added perspective for Cooper. He learned systems from several coaches, including the critical area of “hot routes” used against blitzes that are a big part of the Briles system.
“The center was involved in understanding the calls for the hot routes because it figured into protections,” Cooper said. “You get to a point when you are at center, you understand the whole thing.
“I’m not sure a tackle would be in that position. He’s not concerned with what receivers are doing. He might not know all the fronts. I think my background really gives me a good big picture.”
Cooper snapped for Heisman Trophy winner Sam Bradford at Oklahoma, under the watch of quarterbacks coach Josh Heupel. He followed Heupel to Missouri when Heupel was hired by Odom as offensive coordinator.
All of that time Cooper was also spending time with Briles, because of a best friend at Oklahoma.
“One of my teammates was Kendal’s brother-in-law and our families vacationed together,” Cooper said. “There were a lot of conversations about football on those vacations.
“I was pretty excited when Kendal called me this winter and we finally had a chance to coach together.”
Cooper spent the last two years at Central Florida under Heupel, the head coach. The Knights went 22-4, tossing the ball around in prolific fashion. The tight ends were a big part of the Heupel offense at UCF and at Missouri.
“What Coach Heupel uses is the Briles offense,” Cooper said. “It was basically that at Missouri. It evolved a little at UCF, but I’ve been in the Briles system for the last four years.
“It was very much that at Missouri. There were a couple of guys at Missouri from the Baylor staff, so we used a lot of their stuff.
“The terminology is slightly different, but it is all the same things. The tempo is there. And, the systems are so similar.”
What’s interesting is that Cooper brought Briles some concepts within that old Baylor offense that Heupel tweaked.
“Kendal took some things we’ve done,” Cooper said. “I guess things constantly evolve.”
Cooper’s goal is to some day be an offensive line coach, but he knows there aren’t too many youngsters getting that type of job in the SEC.
“Coming to Arkansas is part of my goal,” he said. “First, it got me to the SEC.
“I do recall coming back from the NFL at 26 and someone telling me that tight end coach was a good place to start to eventually becoming an O-line coach. That was good advice.”
Cooper, who grew up in Fort Collins, Colo., was a teammate with Joe Jon Finley at Oklahoma. Finley, now Ole Miss tight ends coach, was an All-Big 12 tight end.
“We were at Missouri together,” Cooper said. “I knew offensive line play and he knew tight ends play. We spent a lot of time in the offseason picking our brains on how to coach offensive line and tight ends. I was learning tight end play and he was learning offensive line play. You just do what you can to expand your value as far as how much technique you know.”
His background at center could be an asset as Brad Davis (under Pittman’s watch) retools the offensive line. He was confident neither needs his help with Ty Clary’s snap — something that was sometimes a problem the last two seasons — but he would be willing to jump in if necessary.
“I doubt they need me there,” Cooper said. “We are looking forward to seeing our guys with the ball, but I think Brad and Sam know center snap technique as well as I do. If it ever becomes an issue, I would help.”
He’s got plenty to do as he converts his tight ends to the Briles uptempo system. Tight end play has a huge part in the versatility of the offense.
“We will go (four) wide about 5 percent of the time, but the rest of the time we are going to have a tight end out there,” Cooper said. “Tight ends love this offense. It’s a huge component of what we do.
“Every game plan is different so the role changes. Sometimes, we’ll use them as an H-back and they will be involved in protection, then sometimes a defense might lighten the box and have a safety on Treylon Burks in the slot. We’ll take advantage of that.
“This offense is about players not plays, so it changes. We are unselfish in how we distribute the football. We tell our tight ends there are a lot of footballs to spread around. We’ll use our playmakers.”
The offense can be whatever is needed week to week.
“Our goal is to be the fastest team in the nation,” Cooper said. “We will be aggressive (with passes down the field), but we are also going to run it downhill. We will make you defend every blade of grass on the field on defense.
“We instill in our guys that every play can be a touchdown, but if they give you the run, we will take it.”
Cooper likes his tight ends room. He’s got Blake Kern, Hudson Henry, Nathan Bax, Collin Sutherland and Jonas Higson. Blayne Toll is spending time at tight end and defensive end.
“Five is a good number,” Cooper said. “Sutherland and Higson are true freshmen and we like them both. I’m just now getting to spend time with them, but I’ve been with them a great deal on Zoom virtual meetings.
“They are both sponges. Higson is a walk-on from Bentonville West and we really like him. It doesn’t matter if you are on scholarship, he’ll have a chance to help us.”
Sutherland was a late addition to the signing class. He committed the last weekend before the late period.
“Coach Pittman had recruited him at Georgia and Coach Briles had recruited him at Florida State,” Cooper said. “And, I knew of him when I was at UCF. So when we called Collin, he was ready to come.
“The issue with Collin was that he wasn’t healthy the spring ahead of his senior year so he couldn’t go to camp and so no one saw him. If he had been healthy, there would have been a lot of offers. You watch his tape; it set him apart from others. Anyone who would look at that tape would like him.”
Batch transferred from Illinois State.
“Nathan had a great offseason here and changed his body,” Cooper said. “He has a chance to help.”
Of course, Henry was one of the nation’s top tight end prospects in the country out of Pulaski Academy. He played briefly at the end of 2019 but preserved his redshirt season. Kern is a “physical blocker” who at 6-4, 266, is the biggest in the room.
“Blake has a little experience,” Cooper said. “He’s good in pass protection. He’s a big athletic kid and we need to expand his role.
“Hudson is highly skilled and can run. Combined with that, Hudson is one of our hardest workers. We have to calm him down and make it fun. He’s still very young but he has a lot of potential. We know his family background and there are always going to be comparisons to (his brother, NFL tight end) Hunter. He doesn’t have to be Hunter, just Hudson.”
The idea is to prepare all of them to play.
“I’ve been telling him since I got here the goal is to get them to all think they were first team and be ready to play,” Cooper said. “With (covid-19) there is a potential to have players in quarantine at any time. Every player in the room has to be ready to play.
“Then, the other part of the equation is that this offense might need two or three tight ends for a game. There is a tight end out there almost every play. We will rotate players.”
The role is diverse, something Cooper pounds in recruiting.
“Really, what we are looking for is an NFL tight end for this system,” he said. “I think what I know about tight end from my NFL experience helps in explaining that in recruiting. What we are asking of our tight ends is the same as what is asked of NFL tight ends.
“Then, when they get here, I’m going to teach them the game — not just the position or the scheme — and develop them as a player.”
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