North Carolina offensive lineman Jonathan Cooper came to Chapel Hill three years ago out of Wilmington's Hoggard High School with a well-deserved reputation as a mauler in the interior trenches, but there was some debate as to exactly which position he was best suited for in college.
Was he a guard, where he could use his explosiveness in pulling, or was he better at center, where he could use his solid combination of instincts, balance, and technique in the middle?
After redshirting in 2008, Cooper made his first appearance for the Tar Heels at left guard, where he played respectably well in 2009 despite some ankle problems throughout much of the season.
Then last year, as UNC found itself in a decent position depth-wise at guard but having to replace multi-year starting center Lowell Dyer, the Tar Heel coaches decided to groom Cooper for the snapper's role.
Cooper emerged in the spring of 2010 as the heir apparent to Dyer and he started the season opener against LSU in the middle before a disastrous pair of miscommunicated snaps put the Tar Heels behind the eight ball in the first half.
UNC turned then to Cam Holland at center---a player looking for a chance of his own to crack the starting lineup---and it was back to left guard for Cooper.
And now, heading into his third spring season at North Carolina and his fourth-year junior season, Cooper believes he's found his place in the Tar Heel rotation.
"As far as I know, I'm staying at guard," Cooper said.
"You kind of wish you could have done the job (at center), but I go back to guard where I guess I'm more natural, more comfortable, less assignments, and just do what I can do the best."
Cooper doesn't think he's necessarily any more ready this spring than last year just because he's back at left guard, but he admits it is a good situation playing alongside experience players on both sides in left tackle James Hurst and Holland at center.
"I don't know if I'm that much more prepared, because there are guys beside me who are very knowledgeable," he said. "I feel like we may not be veterans grade-wise, but we as far as a knowledge standpoint or the number of snaps, we should be veterans."
"You get the comfort of playing with the guys beside you, just knowing what they're going to do and knowing what to expect," Cooper continued.
With Cooper and Hurst, UNC has a chance to have a pretty powerful left side of its offensive line.
"We like to talk junk and divide the lineups and say that the left side is the strong side," Cooper said. "We just have a comfort with each other (myself and Hurst). It feels pretty good."
"Me and James hang out all the time and Cam also. It's great to have two knowledgeable players beside you so if you do have a brain fart, you have two guys who know what to do and can help you out," he added.
Cooper made no bones about the fact that he and his compadres up front are looking to help the Tar Heel get its ground game moving in a big way this coming season.
"I feel like every year establishing the run is a priority," he said. "This year is no different. We do have a new quarterback, so we don't know what to expect from the passing game just yet. We're going to want to run the ball all the time. Absolutely."
"I feel like we always want to establish the run. That's every offensive line's goal, just about, to be able to run the ball every down and just to push the other team around. So if we can do that it will be a plus."
One of the primary goals for Cooper this spring---and his trench teammates for that matter---is to become lights-out on third down and short-yardage situations.
You know, those times when the other team knows a run play is likely to come.
"I feel like if it's third-and-two, third-and-three, we always want to run the ball," Cooper said. "And sometimes people want to pass it or get finesse, but the O-line is going to want to run the ball. We feel like we can impose our will on the other team and have our way with the opposing defensive line."
Predictably, Cooper's biggest individual goals this season are related to the run game.
"I'd have to say my running game (is my biggest area of improvement)," he said. "I feel like the passing game at times, I get lazy, but I feel pretty confident in that. But I'd like to be able to finish running plays."
"Clemson, there were some plays where I kind of had letdowns in the running game, and those are plays that stick out in my mind that I need to work on and become better," he added.
While finding a way to successfully run the ball with consistency is naturally a focal point, head coach Butch Davis has always stressed the need for balance in a pro-style offensive scheme.
"I feel like we're trying to establish an identity of being great at the run and the pass---just trying to get tenacity about our play," Cooper said. "I feel like we'll just have a very complete line. We have some big guys who can run block, pass block, and hopefully take the run game to the next level."
Last year's bowl victory provided the Tar Heels some extra much-needed momentum heading into offseason workouts and even spring practice this year, but Cooper acknowledged that the team still has plenty of work to do to get where it wants to be.
"I don't know if we'll feel like there's an extra sense to succeed (after last season)," he said. "We're just trying to improve from last year. I felt like last year was a good start. Last year was a good starting point. And we just have a long way to go."
Cooper admitted that last year's trials and tribulations did make this a tougher football team on top of the momentum they gained from having some success.
"It set in our minds that no matter the situation, we could get through it. There were injuries. People sat out because of NCAA stuff," he said.
"It built us closer together as a unit and made us ready to go through whatever, weather the storm, and know we have the guys in the backups and the starting row to do the job."