As the Cal Poly football team’s spring drills kicked off with the first practice Wednesday, comfort was a major theme.
Compared to this time last year — which was only three months after being hired — head coach Tim Walsh and the second-year staff are much more knowledgeable about the personnel, have their own ideas of what works in San Luis Obispo and no longer worry about being in the shadow of the past regime.
Walsh is hoping that comfort, as well as the players’ own coziness with the staff’s coaching style, will lead to more confidence and success following a 4-7 season. Perhaps no player typifies that idea more than junior defensive end Gavin Cooper.
“Football is a game of comfort,” Walsh said. “I hate to say it, but we’ve already talked about it as a team. We’re more comfortable with each other, and that’s going to pay off. Well, an individual player needs to feel good when he steps on that field in order to do the things we ask them to do.”
Cooper was not comfortable with those things last season and, despite being a returning two-year starter under former coach Rich Ellerson, sat out the entire year because of it.
Initially an injury replacement for nose tackle James Chen during his freshman season in 2007, Cooper had more recently been playing multiple spots along the defensive line with a torn labrum in his left shoulder.
Following Ellerson’s last season with the team in 2008, Cooper had surgery to repair the joint and missed all of Walsh’s first spring session at Cal Poly.
Cooper suited up for training camp in August, but during one of the drills early on, the Placerville native — known for disrupting offensive line play through what Ellerson termed “thrashing” and being relentless in pursuit — was having trouble being his old self.
In his first two seasons, Cooper racked up 45 tackles and five sacks, but worries about his shoulder were keeping him from completing even simple tackling drills in fall camp with Walsh.
Thrashing was out of the question.
“I had hurt my shoulder and got a stinger,” Cooper said, “and one of the coaches said, ‘Turn around and do this again.’ I said, ‘I can’t.’ He said ‘If you can’t, we should talk about it.’ So we had a talk and decided it was best to go about taking a redshirt.”
The season had yet to start and with a switch from the flex defense to a 4-3 front, defensive linemen were at a premium. Shutting Cooper down might seem like an extreme decision, but Walsh was already certain that Cooper needed the full season to recover.
“When he said the words, ‘I can’t,’ I think it’s a tough word to overcome after you’ve had an injury,” Walsh said.
“When you’re coming off surgery, and you just don’t feel right, you create bad habits that can get yourself hurt again, and you’re not going to play with the aggression that you normally would.
“It became pretty obvious to us very early on that that probably was the case.”
Not much was said, but Cooper wasn’t seen at practice or on the sideline during games. He strictly limited himself to rehab, weight training, study hall and classes.
Cooper watched home games from the stands and viewed away games through the online feed at Cal Poly’s athletic Web site.
It was the first time from Pop Warner all the way through college that he had missed a game, and the experience was unbearable in that sense.
Cooper said he stayed removed because he didn’t want to be a distraction to healthy teammates, but he affected his teammates in a new way, one that seems to have changed his perspective.
“I’ve never been a fan,” Cooper said. “I’ve never been to a football game. So I got to watch my friends play and do really well, hang out with them afterwards. And talk about their stories and their interceptions and all their cool plays.”
He’d text them during the game so by the time they hit the showers, they knew exactly what was going through his mind.
Now that Cooper has returned to practice — competing with former Atascadero High standout Brandon Roberts, Bobby Best and Joe Brum for the weakside defensive end spot — they’re back to hearing from him face to face.
He has two ongoing wagers, one with junior receiver Eric Alsaker to see who can go the longest without cutting his hair. Both appear to be about shoulder length at this point.
Cooper also wants to change his number. Apparently, he’s ready to shed former kicker Andrew Gardner’s old No. 94, and Walsh will let him do it before next season if he racks up the sacks this spring.
Getting back to the main theme, that one’s a bet Walsh would be more than comfortable losing.
“We expect him to be a dominant rush guy for us,” Walsh said. “We think that he’s an all-conference, lead-the-conference-in-sacks type of player.”