116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
IOWA CITY — Cooper DeJean could shake his head and cover his face with his hand, but he could not stop fellow defensive back Kaevon Merriweather “gassing (him) up” in the postgame interview room in the depths of Kinnick Stadium last week.
“What doesn’t Coop do well?” Merriweather said as he looked over to DeJean standing off to the side. “You saw him on the punt return, athlete. Corner, athlete. Cash, athlete. You all didn’t even get to see him play safety. He did it in fall camp. Athlete.”
Athlete is a fitting word for DeJean.
DeJean is tied for second in the Big Ten with four interceptions despite playing predominantly at a different position in the secondary than where he was listed on the preseason depth chart. He has returned two of the interceptions for touchdowns.
The Iowa sophomore had more punt return yards in one game against Wisconsin than reigning Big Ten Return Specialist of the Year Charlie Jones had in his first six games combined at Purdue this year.
Iowa football coach Kirk Ferentz’s biggest hesitation with putting DeJean permanently at punt returner seems to be not having him elsewhere on the punt return unit.
“He does a great job back there, obviously, but the bad news is we lose one of our best corners, the guy who blocks the gunner,” Ferentz said Tuesday. “Maybe Arland (Bruce) can do that, I don't know.”
Iowa strength and conditioning director Raimond Braithwaite described DeJean before the season as “one of the top five fastest guys on the team.”
“There's probably not a position on the perimeter he couldn't play,” Ferentz said Saturday. “You'd have to change your offense if he was your quarterback, but I'm pretty sure he could be a pretty good running back. I know he could be a really good receiver.”
While much of DeJean’s in-game action has been at cornerback, he also has worked at Cash and safety in practice.
“He has the ability to play all five positions,” defensive coordinator Phil Parker told reporters via Zoom this week.
DeJean has been predominantly playing at cornerback out of necessity because of an injury to Terry Roberts.
"We don’t have that luxury right now to take him away from the corner position, which he has been doing very well at that,“ Parker said.
But Parker could see DeJean playing at strong safety, free safety or Cash in the future.
“Is he an Amani Hooker type?” Parker said. “Probably a little better coverage wise.”
Another safety comes to mind for Ferentz when talking about DeJean’s “unusual skill set” — Micah Hyde, who is in his 10th season in the NFL.
“Micah Hyde probably (is) the closest thing maybe we had,” Ferentz said. “Maybe Desmond (King), but Micah is probably the better reach there.”
DeJean is simply “trying to do whatever they tell me to do.”
“I love playing the game of football, so any time I get to be out on the field, I just enjoy every moment and give it my all,” DeJean said.
Position versatility is nothing new to DeJean. At OABCIG in northwest Iowa — short for Odebolt-Arthur-Battle Creek-Ida Grove High School — he had to play more than just defensive back.
At various points in his high school career, he played quarterback, wide receiver, cornerback, safety and even linebacker.
As for any positions DeJean could not play, “we never found one,” his high school coach Larry Allen told The Gazette.
“He’s just a natural athlete,” the OABCIG coach said.
His high school highlight videos were filled with 70-plus yard touchdowns, interceptions and big hits against the Class 2A competition.
He had one interception where he lateraled the ball back to a teammate and ran downfield to block for his teammate on the way to an OABCIG touchdown.
“He just had the wherewithal to know that he was being tackled and pitch it and the kid let go of him,” Allen said. “He just ran downfield, and that’s just the kind of player he is — that he didn’t stop on the play until it was over.”
A DeJean touchdown run in the state championship particularly stands out to Allen. DeJean held onto the read option and went left. With Van Meter defenders closing in, he then broke all the way from the left end of the field to the right for a game-winning touchdown.
“The magnitude of that play at the time was huge,” Allen said.
Allen remembers another play from DeJean’s junior year where DeJean “weaved in and out of traffic” and “went from the right to the left and then back to the right.”
“We joked about there was one kid that touched him five times and never got him down,” Allen said.
DeJean’s early success at the Power Five level followed an unusually quiet recruitment. While others expressed some interest in DeJean, Iowa was the only FBS school to offer him a scholarship.
“We pretty much make our minds up for ourselves,” Ferentz said. “We don't copycat recruit. But you always wonder — and Josey Jewell is another example — ‘Where is everybody?’”
OABCIG’s location — about an hour from Sioux City, 2 1/2 hours from Des Moines and almost two hours from Omaha — or smaller enrollment may have been a deterrent for some college coaches.
“I don’t know if it was because he was a small-town kid,” Allen said. “I know he had his eyes set on Iowa, so I don’t know if that kept schools away.”
But even then, his highlights were available on the website Hudl for anyone to see.
“In this day where there are no secrets, everybody's got video,” Ferentz said. “In the old days you could hide guys out. You might lose — not lose, but misplace a film so the coach can't get it back and share with somebody else. But those days are gone like the past 30 years.”
Whatever the reason was, Allen said it was “crazy that they didn’t reach out more.”
“Nebraska was at a game to watch another player, and Cooper had a really good game,” Allen said. “So he went on a visit after that, but for teams not to take a chance on him was kind of mystifying. … You would think somebody would have had the idea to offer him.”
North Dakota State, South Dakota State, Northern Iowa and Illinois State eventually offered DeJean a scholarship, according to 247Sports and Rivals, but the FCS offers came after Iowa’s offer.
“FCS schools really weren't knocking the door down, but you have to believe what you see and believe what you feel, too,” Ferentz said.
Watching DeJean play basketball, Ferentz reached the point where he “can't deny what you're seeing.”
“If you want to check out his highlight film there, that’s just as impressive as football,” Allen said. “He throws down quite a few dunks, and he just does it effortlessly. … Going into his high school career, he had his eyes on playing basketball in college.”
Looking ahead, Iowa teammates have high expectations for the under-recruited athlete from small-town Iowa.
“Even when he makes mistakes, he’s always finding a way to bounce back and correct those mistakes,” Merriweather said. “You’re going to have a very talented player, and I think the ceiling for him is the sky.”
Iowa linebacker Jack Campbell said DeJean is a “special kid.”
“You guys see it out there on Saturdays,” Campbell said. “I’m excited to see what he’s going to continue to do.”
Just don’t sing that praise in front of DeJean.
“For you to give him accolades or talk about him, I don’t know that it embarrasses him necessarily, but he is not one that’s going to toot his own horn,” Allen said. “All around, an All-American kind of kid.”