INDIANAPOLIS -- As a youngster, Jonathan Cooper was too big to play Pop Warner football because of size restrictions.
"I was just a fat little kid," he said.
So for a couple of years he served as waterboy for his brother's little league team until he finally got to play as a seventh-grader. Even then, Cooper concedes, "I was kind of big and soft. But I finally learned the game, got some toughness about me and I was able to excel."
He excelled all the way through a highly successful college career at offensive guard for North Carolina. Funny how things have changed. Since the end of the 2012 season, the player once deemed too big for Pop Warner has worked on getting big enough for the NFL.
"During the season, I had gotten down to about 285 pounds running the spread, no-huddle offense," he said.
But he weighed in at 312 pounds Thursday at the NFL Scouting Combine, on a 6-foot-21/2-inch frame.
"I do feel the difference," he said. "I feel like I've got just a little more 'butt' behind me"
(The better to anchor.)
"And I'm ready to be more of a physical player," he said.
Cooper added the weight with what might be called the sportswriter's diet.
"Just trying to eat as much as I possibly could," Cooper said. "It really turned into just eat, eat, eat. . . . Maybe not the healthiest things, but just get the weight on, because I knew I'd work hard enough to kind of do what I needed to do."
At the top of the 2013 draft, this is not the best year to be looking for skill position players. In the Year of the Grunt, Cooper is one of the top-rated offensive linemen. He's expected to go in the first round of April's draft, and at the moment is expected to go right around where the Rams are selecting with the No. 16 and No. 22 picks.
The Rams haven't taken a guard higher than the second round since the franchise moved to St. Louis in 1995. And both of those second-rounders were chosen in the '95 draft. Zach Wiegert was taken 38th and actually split his time between guard and tackle during a 12-year NFL career that included stops with three teams.
Meanwhile, Jesse James, taken 62nd in '95, played in only two games and lasted just two seasons in the NFL.
Over the entire 75-year history of the Rams, the franchise has selected only two guards in the first round. But the last two guards taken in the opening round were great players.
Dennis Harrah, taken No. 10 out of Miami (Fla.) in 1975, was a six-time Pro Bowler. Tom Mack, taken second overall selection out of Michigan in 1966, made 11 Pro Bowls and is in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Guard is not a glamour position. Even in this day and age, it's harder to get noticed when you're battling in the phone booth between the tackles.
"I'm very blessed to be playing at guard and to be as highly regarded as I am," Cooper said. "So I'm thankful for that. But no, it's not a glamour position."
A consensus all-American in 2012 and winner of the Jacobs Blocking Trophy as the Atlantic Coast Conference's top offensive lineman, Cooper took over the starting left guard duties for the Tar Heels as a freshman and has been there ever since.
In case you hadn't noticed, left guard is a need position for the Rams, with three players starting there last season. One of those three, Shelley Smith, should be in the mix in 2013.
So should Rokevious Watkins, a fifth-round draft pick a year ago who showed up to training camp overweight and out of shape before suffering a severe ankle injury in the opener.
"He's the kind of guy that has unbelievable strength and power," offensive line coach Paul Boudreau said during an end-of-the-season interview. "He just needs to learn how to play fast and play hard for four quarters."
There's no guarantee that Watkins will be ready to start, so using a high draft pick for a guard may be under consideration at Rams Park. Alabama's Chance Warmack looks like a top 10 pick; the next in line at the guard position is Cooper.
Part of the Rams' decision-making process could revolve around whether they want a mauler, or value athleticism at left guard. Cooper's game is athleticism.
"He's one of the most athletic guards I've ever seen," said NFL Network analyst Mike Mayock. "This kid is great on his feet. ... If I'm Jonathan Cooper, I'm excited about going to the Combine because in a pair of gym shorts, he ought to wow them."
The offensive linemen don't work out until Saturday, and even at his heavier weight Cooper thinks he'll display the same speed, footwork, and quickness that he did at 285 pounds.
"I love pulling and I love getting out in space," Cooper said. "Whether it's power (running plays) -- getting on the linebacker quickly and trying to crush him -- or a screen and pulling and just getting out on space, I really love that."
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