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Updated: March 31st, 2012 9:12pm
Though sidelined, Keanon Cooper having an impact on Gophers defense

Though sidelined, Keanon Cooper having an impact on Gophers defense

by Nate Sandell
1500ESPN.com
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MINNEAPOLIS -- Armed with a green jersey and a protective cast over his right wrist, Keanon Cooper stands close to the endzone, arms folded, observing the Gophers defense.

Defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys is situated near-by as the pair intently discuss strategy, which has become a daily occurrence in the first two weeks of spring practice.

Cooper longs to be back at his typical spot at outside linebacker, but that desire is still several months from being fulfilled. In the meantime, the redshirt senior -- barred from contact this spring as a result of wrist surgery he underwent on Feb. 14 -- is serving as a source of guidance from the sidelines.

"He's become kind of like an extra coach on the field," coach Jerry Kill said. "Sometimes when you're in a situation like that you get to step back and actually coach and teach and you're watching, you learn a lot. And I think he has learned and it has really helped us."

Though he would undoubtedly prefer to be donned in full pads, Cooper is taking to his adopted role with a persistent determination. He floats among his teammates in practice, watching on with an unshakeable focus, stopping every so often to offer instruction to one of the younger linebackers.

"I'm not naturally a vocal guy," Coopers said. "I'm a sit-back, lead-by-example type person. The fact that I'm in the position that I am in it allows me to be more vocal. I'm being a coach right now."

Sophomore Lamonte Edwards and junior James Manuel -- both recent additions to the linebacker corps -- have drawn heightened interest from Cooper, whose presence is having a palpable effect on the duo. Edwards, who made the switch to defense from running back in the middle of last season, and Manuel, shifted down from safety during the offseason, are enjoying strong starts to the spring -- an occurrence Cooper is relishing in.

"One of the most exciting things has been the development of Lamonte and James," Cooper said unprompted after practice Thursday. "It's getting me itching to play, because they are doing a great job and I can't compete with the guys."

His frustration of being forced to sit out is understandable, but repairs on his wrist were a necessity after gritting through a season filled with nagging pain. Cooper played the majority of the Gophers' 2011 campaign with a minor facture. That didn't prevent him from finishing fourth on the team in tackles with 77 (34 solo, 43 assisted), moving his career total to 188 -- the most of any current player on the "U" roster.

As the off-season progressed, the injury continued to be a problem, leaving Cooper and the team's medical staff to decide surgery would be the best option. Six weeks removed from the operation, Cooper said he is no longer feeling pain in his wrist. However, the Gophers are being cautious to not to overexpose the defensive standout too soon. Cooper, allowed to compete only in limited team drills this spring, is projecting early summer as his return to full strength.

A healthy Cooper will be a welcomed boost to the Gophers defense, which desperately needs the reliable balance provided by its upperclassman. If Claeys' prediction comes true, then Cooper's impact has yet to be fully felt.

"I don't think people have seen how truly good of a football player he is because of that (wrist)," Claeys said. "We're trying to get him healthy and hopefully we'll start seeing some results."

Until then, Cooper will bide his time in the background as an onlooker alongside Claeys.

Notes from spring practice No. 6

• Overcast skies, a chilly breeze and a 45-degree temperature served as the setting for the Gophers' first practice of the spring at TCF Bank Stadium on Saturday. A sizeable crowd -- the largest so far this spring -- littered the sidelines. The onlookers were made up mainly of the several hundred high school coaches on campus for a two-day instructional clinic hosted by the "U".

• The Gophers' offense had another shaky outing. The spring has been a slow work-in-progress for quarterback MarQueis Gray and his young offense as the group tries to establish timing and a level of fluidity.

"We're still doing a little bit of thinking and not flying around like we should be right now," Gray said.

• The play of the day came at Gray's expense. During 11-on-11s, defensive end Ben Perry, inching in on a zone blitz, picked off an ill-advised pass from Gray and returned it for a would-be touchdown.

"He got me that play," the senior quarterback admitted with a slight grin. "I'm not going to make any excuses. BP made a good play. Otherwise I would say I didn't get a good grip on the ball. It won't happen again."

• A pair of recent Gophers alums made appearances at practice. Duane Bennett and Kim Royston mingled on the sidelines with their former teammates and coaches. Bennett and Royston -- both of whom have pro aspirations -- are in the midst of prepping for a possible invite to an NFL training camp this summer.

Nate Sandell is a contributor to 1500ESPN.com.
Email Nate | @nsandell
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