By Darren Feeney / KFMB Interactive
SAN DIEGO, Calif. (CBS 8) - When Stephen Cooper looks to his left and then his right in the linebacker section of the San Diego Chargers locker room, he sees a lot of new faces.
"There's a lot of new things going on with this linebacker crew in comparison to years past," said Cooper. "We're doing our best to try and get everyone familiar in all facets of our defense, and that includes special teams."
Despite a Division I-AA All-American playing resume from the University of Maine, Cooper went undrafted in the 2003 NFL Draft. San Diego took a chance on him as an undrafted free agent, and seven seasons later he is the quarterback and captain of the top-rated defense in the NFL.
It didn't take long for Cooper's undrafted label to peel off and make way for his true talent to be recognized.
In an interview with Jay Posner of the San Diego Union Tribune during the 2004 training camp, former head coach Marty Schottenheimer said, "Stephen is arguably having the best camp of any linebacker we've got here. He's very bright, explosive and he can run."
Despite not being the biggest linebacker, Cooper has always found ways to make tackles.
In an interview with Posner, Cooper told Posner, "It really isn't about the size. I think it's all about instincts and how explosive you are. I think I'm smart enough and I have good enough explosion and enough punch to get guys off me and make plays."
Since becoming a full-time starter, Cooper has become a reliable three-down option for the coaching staff, and has developed into a player who commands the respect of opposing offenses. But maybe more importantly, he's gained the respect of his teammates as a leader and field general.
"He has the ability to get people lined up in the right place and in their assignment," linebacker Kevin Burnett said. "That's a gift and a lot of people don't know that...being able to line people up, tell them what to do, and still being able to execute your own assignment, that's big."
Simply put, Cooper is as productive as anyone at his position. His average stat line over the past three years? 100 tackles, 6.5 passes defended, two interceptions, one sack, one forced fumble.
In the same way that Burnett has taken notice of Cooper's leadership style and ability to produce, Cooper observed and admired the teammate he would eventually replace.
"Randall Godfrey's style was someone's I liked when we signed him in my second season," Cooper said. "He always led by example but also brought it out in me to be the best linebacker I can possibly be. I try to lead by example vocally, both on and off the field, and all these guys in this locker room know I'm all about business and all about winning."
The Chargers linebacker crew has faced more adversity than any other unit—well, maybe excluding the wide receiving corps—through the first half of the season, with key injuries to Brandon Siler and Larry English, and the recent departure of Shawne Merriman.
Look no further than the aforementioned Burnett for someone who is stepping up and filling the void. Burnett is enjoying the best season of his six-year career with a team-best 45 tackles, five sacks, and two forced fumbles.
"The biggest difference in Kevin's skill set this year is his ability to rush the passer," Cooper said. "He's doing it all right now, stopping the run, fighting off blocks...with Shaun Phillips and Antwan Applewhite both playing at a high level, there's no drop off."
If Cooper had to pick four other players to suit up with him on the basketball court, Burnett, who is better suited for golf, wouldn't be one of them.
"I'd take Gates for obvious reasons, my man 'B-Si' (Brandon Siler), Shaun Phillips and [Phillip] Rivers," said Cooper.
When asked what position he'd be playing if he wasn't a linebacker, Cooper said he'd be a quarterback.
It should come as no surprise, then, that during high school in Wareham, Massachusetts, besides being a standout linebacker, Cooper was more feared as the team's starting quarterback. Following the 1997 season, Cooper earned the right to represent Massachusetts at the national High School Quarterback Challenge in Orlando.
The Chargers have a pretty good option right now at quarterback in Philip Rivers. It's safe to say the Chargers will continue enjoying Cooper's efforts quarterbacking the defense.