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By MIKE CONNOLLY
Associate Sports Editor
Irish head coach Bob Davie recognized something special in Deke Cooper from the beginning.
Although Cooper practiced with the offense and caught a pass against Purdue, Davie wanted Cooper in his defensive backfield. The then Irish defensive coordinator went to head coach Lou Holtz the week before the Air Force game in 1996 to request Cooper move to defense. Holtz agreed — under one condition.
"Coach Holtz told me I could have him," Davie said. "But he had to start."
With just a week's worth of practice at free safety under his belt, Cooper got his first start against the Air Force Academy and its complicated wishbone offense.
"It was scary," Cooper said of his first starting assignment. "It was real scary. I wasn't really prepared to play at the time but I was glad that coach had confidence in me and I played the best I could."
Cooper was so unfamiliar with the defensive system, that Davie hollered out checks and formations to the freshman from the sideline.
"He's calling out the formation — `watch the wishbone, watch the pass,'" Cooper said. "There was like 100 different things going through my mind at the time."
Davie found the quiet crowd bittersweet during the 20-17 loss.
"In one way I am glad our crowd was quiet that day because you could stand there and holler out checks to Cooper," he said.
Things have definitely changed in four years for Cooper. The once confused freshman in his first start is now a veteran senior with 19 starts under his belt and is helping out other young starters learning the defense.
"Now that's my job," Cooper said. "It's funny; time just flew by. I can remember the time when he was shouting calls to me, now I am shouting calls to Cliff [Jefferson] or [Ron] Israel."
The road from freshman to leader has not been easy for Cooper, however.
After starting six games as a freshman and finishing second on the team with three interceptions, Cooper started only two games as a sophomore. Cooper played backup to senior Jarvis Edison for most of the season.
The frustration of not starting gave him a bad attitude in the classroom. Cooper stopped going to class and watched his grade point average slip.
"I came in my freshman year and I started six games," Cooper said. "So I was thinking that I've got the hang of this. So when my sophomore year came and I wasn't playing as much, I started getting down on myself. I stopped going to class and I was just down. My grades fell."
In the spring of his sophomore year, Davie invited Cooper into his office. Davie said Cooper was going to sit out spring practice to get his grades up.
Cooper was technically academically eligible but Davie didn't like the way Cooper's grades were slipping and wanted Cooper back on track academically without football distracting him.
Cooper was surprised at the suspension.
"It was kind of like a slap in my face," he said "When coach told me that I couldn't play spring ball, I was like `Wow.' I never had to sit out anything athletically before."
He considered transferring to a school less concerned with grades that would let him play football.
"I thought about it," he said. "Maybe this wasn't the place for me. I could go somewhere else where I would play and academics weren't as hard but then I had to think about it graduation-wise, I was going to be set. So I decided to tough it out."
Davie is proud Cooper brought up his grades and rededicated himself. He has seen a change in Cooper since the suspension.
"We held him out of spring practice for a reason — to make an emphasis on him what was really important," Davie said. "He's come back from that and he's going to graduate from Notre Dame. Not many places in the country would hold you out of spring football when you don't have to. That was something we did as a coaching staff — something I think that's helped his development.
"I'm proud of the way he responded," Davie said. "We could have held him out of spring practice and he could have packed his bags and gone someplace else where they wouldn't have held him out. He took the suspension and he's a better person because of it."
Cooper has bounced back strong from his suspension, he earned a 3.083 in the fall of his junior year and this fall he received academic accolades for earning a 3.6 GPA in the summer semester.
Cooper has become a better football player since sitting out the spring practice. As a junior he started five games and made 78 tackles.
One of those tackles especially stands out in Cooper and every Irish fan's mind — his tackle of Boston College running back Mike Cloud just a yard short of the goal line on fourth down to preserve the 31-26 Notre Dame victory.
A wide grin spreads across Cooper's face when he recalls the tackle.
"I was hurt that game," he said. "I sat out the whole fourth quarter because of a hyper extended elbow and A'Jani [Sanders] was playing. But then A'Jani got hurt — he had a hip pointer — so I had to play. There were three great plays before mine so I can't really say I saved the game. Because without those three plays, I never would have had a chance to make a play."
Cooper and Sanders have a special relationship in the defensive secondary. The two seniors alternated at free safety last year before Cooper moved to become the starting free safety this year.
"Deke is a quiet leader," Sanders said. "He leads by action. I look at him sometimes when I am down and he keeps me going."
While Cooper has been the motivating spark on defense for most the season, he was down a bit after the Michigan State loss. He barely missed a game saving tackle on Gari Scott's 80-yard touchdown catch.
"That was real disappointing," he said. "I had to sit for two weeks and think about that. I felt I let the team down, I let myself down. That's was one play. I've made better plays and I will make more plays so I can't let that one play get me down."
Cooper has made plenty of plays since that missed tackle.
Cooper had one of the best games of his career against Arizona State last Saturday. He picked off a pass and recovered two Sun Devil fumbles to account for three of the Notre Dame's six forced turnovers.
"I am finally getting into the groove of things and getting constant big plays," Cooper said "You can't make a big play one week and then go five weeks without making a big play."
Cooper is also one of the hardest hitters on the team. Many wide receivers have paid the price for running over the middle with Cooper and Sanders roaming the field.
Both safeties are in constant competition to out do one another on the field.
"I get back there and me and AJ [A'Jani Sanders] always try to go back there and out do each other," Cooper said. "Sort of like that Michael Jordan commercial — anything you can do I can do better. If he makes a play that means I have to make a play."
Cooper gets a special feeling when he really crushes an opponent.
"It's a great feeling," he said. "You are standing over them and they can't say anything. All they can do is say nice hit or stay down."
As long as Cooper is in an Irish uniform, it might be better for Notre Dame opponents to stay down.
All Sports Stories for Friday, October 15, 1999