Cooper DeJean is just way too versatile to keep off the field. What's his 2022 outlook at Iowa?
IOWA CITY — Cooper DeJean's athletic versatility made him a priority target in Iowa football's 2021 recruiting class. And that versatility allowed him to find a role toward the end of his first college football season.
DeJean, a prolific high school quarterback, entered Iowa with projections to play safety. At the midway point through the year, he switched to cornerback, then added a role on special teams and also played some scout team receiver in between. That's quite a bit to digest for a true freshman, but his skillset paved the way for early playing time.
Now, DeJean is a season more mature and still planning on helping Iowa in multiple ways in 2022. He was listed as a No. 2 cornerback on Iowa's initial spring practice depth chart, but on Tuesday he said the majority of his work this spring has come at safety and "Cash," Iowa's linebacker/defensive back hybrid position.
"It's been a learning process," DeJean told reporters. "I'm still trying to get it all down. (Cash) is a lot different. I haven't played linebacker in a long time and that's kind of where that position's at so it's definitely a change but I've learned a lot."
DeJean got a small taste of playing defensive back in Iowa's Citrus Bowl loss to Kentucky. He worked his way up the depth chart to No. 2 cornerback late in the season and when starter Jermari Harris was injured late in the Citrus Bowl, DeJean got his first live snaps at cornerback.
From those snaps, DeJean said he learned valuable lessons that he's carried over into spring practice.
"I got to work on just trying to figure out what the offense is trying to do to me," DeJean said. "I only got a couple of plays at corner at the end of the bowl game but I think it helped a lot just to show the speed that these athletes play at on the perimeter."
DeJean credits working on Iowa's special teams unit last season for his development. He made an impression on special teams coach LeVar Woods, who gave him playing time both as a gunner and a return man. Last season, he returned one kick for 20 yards and, beginning with the Wisconsin game on Oct. 30, played consistent gunner.
"He hadn't played that position but we threw him in there when we had a need with injuries," Woods said. "To his credit, he paid attention in the meetings and he gave me confidence because he worked every day. He was the first guy out there fielding punts every day, every practice as a freshman. That kind of let me know his mindset to let me know he's a football player."
DeJean continues to work at both gunner and returner this spring, but on Wednesday, Woods said that DeJean has inserted himself into another possible position on special teams: field goal holder. DeJean finished his high school career with 132 career touchdowns but also served as the holder for his OABCIG team.
Using him in potential fake field-goal situations, or even just the threat of using him, could be an advantage for Iowa if he wins the job outright.
"It starts with holding the ball and putting it through the uprights," Woods said. "It certainly adds another dimension. Cooper's an exceptional athlete. We all saw him in high school with the ball in his hands as a quarterback. He has a unique ability with the ball in his hands and I think that's part of that position."
Special teams helped DeJean adjust to the speed of the game last season. He noted the big jump from the Class 2A classification in high school to Big Ten football as one of his biggest adjustments during his freshman year. He's watching much more film and spending time in Iowa's defensive playbook to make contributions there as well. Even though he hasn't seen much work at cornerback this spring, those lessons from fall are helping him at safety and Cash.
"It allows me to be more versatile and add more to the team," DeJean said. "It helps with my footwork, coming down when I do have to play (man-to-man) coverage. It helps a lot being able to play both positions."
DeJean seems to be taking steps forward this spring and in a secondary where there's open competition at multiple spots. His versatility has been an asset to defensive coordinator Phil Parker.
"(DeJean)'s done a good job," Parker said. "For the last year, he's played outside (cornerback) but he can play inside and the Cash. There's multiple positions that these guys can play."
Another positive sign is that DeJean's athleticism is being met with an increase in strength. He said he's up 10 pounds (to 6-foot-1 and 203 pounds) and that added strength will help him in run defense this season. And there's potential for him to continue growing and getting stronger, according to strength and conditioning coach Raimond Braithwaite.
Because DeJean used his off months from football playing other sports in high school, he wasn't consistently lifting and training just for football. Now that he's focused solely on football, his measurables could continue rising.
"(Cooper)'s multi-sport background has helped him a ton in football," Braithwaite said. "There's a variety of skills in other sports that transfer over that helps him. He's wired very highly and he's one of our more athletic, younger athletes."
It's not determined yet exactly where DeJean will play and for how many snaps but he certainly will have a role on Iowa's team this year. He'll continue to lean on what helped get him here — the ability and willingness to line up at nearly any position — to carve out bigger roles as time goes on
"I think (versatility) helps a lot and provides a lot of opportunities," DeJean said. "Playing multiple positions on defense and then also getting involved on special teams, whether that's returning or one of the gunners, or anything like that helps."
Kennington Lloyd Smith III covers Iowa Hawkeyes football and men's basketball for the Des Moines Register. You can connect with Kennington on Twitter @SkinnyKenny_ or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.