INDIANAPOLIS –Jonathan Cooper always has been a giant of a man.
Physically, Cooper was too big to play Pop Warner football. To stay connected, he worked the sidelines for his brother's team.
"I would go out there, carry the water around and run sprints with them after practice," said Cooper. "It definitely was pent up (emotion). I was just a fat little kid always getting picked on. I was like 'I'm gonna play football. That's a dream of mine and I want to play.' So I was a water boy for my brother's Pop Warner team for a couple of years."
Between his seventh and eighth grade year, Cooper grew four more inches and his time was arriving.
Cooper, now 6-3, 312, entered Hoggard High School, and his career path took off.
"I was finally able to play my seventh-grade year in middle school, and I was kind of big and soft, but I finally learned the game, got some toughness about me and I was able to excel," said Cooper. "I had a coach in high school who really taught me mental toughness.
"He was always trying to break us, and he really taught me that you always have one more rep left in you and just keep pushing and you'll make it. That really helped me with the mental aspect and the physical aspect."
Cooper left as the eighth-best prospect in North Carolina. Resisting offers elsewhere, he entered North Carolina as a true physical specimen.
While there, Cooper showed his character as a person by electing to stay and finish in a program that had run afoul of rules.
Rather than transfer or leave early for the NFL like others, Cooper endured. He was one of three scholarship players from his 2008 entry class who stayed in Chapel Hill. Now, he is in a position to be one of the early choices in April's draft.
Cooper played predominantly at guard, though there was one game he played at center. Play, he did.
Cooper started a school-record 47 career games, 10 as a redshirt freshman and never fewer than 12 outings in any season the rest of the way.
He was a consensus All-America choice, an Outland Finalist and this past year was a first-team All-ACC nominee after being a second-team choice each of the two previous seasons.
Giovani Bernard rushed for more than 1,200 yards last year, and he knows one reason for his own success.
"He (Cooper) honestly deserves each and every single yard that each and every running back puts up," said Bernard.
Cooper was raised with four brothers and sisters in a tight family environment where hugs were more prevalent than anything else. His parents cautioned him to be careful with others his age because of his size.
Priding himself as "a lover, not a fighter," Cooper comports himself well on the field. In almost a decade of football, he never has been flagged for a personal foul. He does not want to be solely responsible for a penalty that hurts a team.
His aggression is controlled. From whistle-to-whistle, Cooper is a tough customer.
"I'm not trying to do anything flagrant or unnecessary," said Cooper. "I'm just trying to block you to the best of my ability till the whistle blows, try to put you on the ground. I may help you up but on the next play, I'm going to try and put you right back down again."
Cooper says he wants to be as versatile as possible. He has worked doing all the types of snaps associated with the center position. His weight during his senior season dropped to 285 pounds. It was a third straight season participating in at least 860 snaps. He wants to play around 315.
"I'd say I'm a combination of power and athleticism," said Cooper. "I can run power. You can look at it from my first three years of film where we're a pro-style offense where power was our staple play. This year it really showed my athletic ability, getting out in space. We ran a bunch of screens and a lot of things where I was on the second and third level getting on linebackers and DBs and such."
Guards typically do not go high. Maybe Cooper can reset history. It is a position he enjoys playing.
"I think I'm very blessed to be playing at guard and to be as highly-regarded as I am, so I'm thankful for that," said Cooper. "It's not a glamour position. They like guys who run power and run it consecutive times, just smash people until they can't hardly think. It is not a glamour position and it is hard to be scouted, but I'm grateful because I have been blessed with the opportunity.
"The fun part is the possibility of being drafted. It's been a dream for a long time and even as a guard people are like, 'Well, there's no way he'll go early. Maybe he'll go third or fourth.' Whatever, but the possibility of being drafted (is fun), and who knows, possibly being drafted high. I know there are a bunch of great guards in this draft. If we all get drafted high and I'm not the first guard taken, I'm not mad at all. I'm a competitor. I love to compete. If I am drafted first out of the guards, I'll be ecstatic. If I'm drafted high and I'm not the first, I'll be OK just the same."
LOOKING AT THE 2013 NFL DRAFT'S GUARDS
THE LAST SIX
The last six guards drafted by the Colts:
2012: Justin Anderson, seventh round, Georgia
2011: Ben Ijalana, second round, Villanova
2010: Jacques McClendon, fourth round, Tennessee
2009: Jaimie Thomas, seventh round, Maryland
2008: Jamey Richard, seventh round, Buffalo
2008: Mike Pollak, second round, Arizona State
THIS YEAR'S DRAFT
An alphabetical list of guards expected to be selected in the 2013 NFL Draft (*-denotes underclassman):
Jonathan Cooper, North Carolina
Kyle Long, Oregon
Dallas Thomas, Tennessee
Hugh Thornton, Illinois
Joseph Tretter, Cornell
Larry Warford, Kentucky
Chance Warmack, Alabama
Brian Winters, Kent State
Note: The content in this story and in the series of draft-eligible players that appears on Colts.com in no way reflects the position of the Indianapolis Colts.