It wasn’t supposed to go this way for Ohio State graduate defensive end Jonathon Cooper.

The 6-4, 257-pound Columbus native was the 33rd-ranked player in the nation coming out of high school in 2016. That meant the road ahead of him looked a little bit like this: Come to play football in Columbus, earn a starting spot as a freshman, become all-B1G as a sophomore, then become an All-American as a junior and leave a year early for the NFL.

Again, that’s how it was supposed to go. After all, the only player ranked ahead of him in Ohio State’s recruiting class that year was Nick Bosa.

Instead, Cooper had to sit back and wait while other superbly talented defensive players, like Bosa, shined.

By 2019 — Cooper’s senior year — he was ready to step up and shine, but a high ankle sprain plagued him all season. Elected captain, he appeared in just 4 games, which made him eligible to redshirt because of new NCAA rules. By his thinking, he would get another chance to play a full season in 2020. So he sat and watched as his teammates went on to win the B1G championship, then advance to the College Football Playoff semifinal against Clemson.

And we all know how that turned out.

Still, even after the Playoff loss, Cooper was optimistic. He knew he could regroup, get healthy, and be ready to come back for the full 2020 year. He was named captain, and awarded the honor of wearing the “Block O” zero jersey — a new tradition that honors the legacy of OSU lineman Bill Willis.

Everything seemed to be adding up for Cooper.

Then the coronavirus pandemic ruined everything.

‘I love this team’

Cooper had known struggles before.

He was born nine weeks premature, to an 18-year-old unwed mother. The little family went through health and financial difficulties, and by age 14, Cooper had to have two heart surgeries to treat arrhythmia. It was either that, or get a pacemaker, but that would’ve required him to quit football — something Cooper said he would never do.

By 2020, Cooper knew how to persevere. Still, he was disappointed. He had no idea if his gamble to sit out 2019 would pay off.

The B1G season was canceled, then it was back on, then games got postponed and rescheduled. The Buckeyes only ended up playing 5 regular contests, and they lost their chance to play the Wolverines. But along the way, Cooper had started to show what he could do. He plugged holes and rushed opposing quarterbacks and racked up 20 tackles, 2.5 tackles for loss, 2.5 sacks, 2 quarterback hurries and 1 pass breakup.

“When I look back on it — two years to play one full senior season — it eases the stress a little bit,” Cooper told Cleveland.com. “I’m just happy that I got a chance to do any of that. To just go out there and play with my brothers. I love this team. Sitting out and watching your team play really hurts and really sucks. The fact that I got the chance to do any of that and be the leader that I wanted to be and do what I wanted to do with my guys, I’m happy.”

Along the way, Cooper played a huge role in turning around what many felt would be a questionable 2020 Buckeyes defense. He has started every game and, along with teammates Tommy Togiai and Haskell Garrett, the line developed into a consistent, disruptive force, one that finished the season ranked 7th nationally in stopping the run after allowing just 96.7 rushing yards per game. Against No. 9 Indiana, Michigan State and No. 14 Northwestern, the Buckeyes gave up just 2.5 yards per carry.

“Obviously this year hasn’t gone exactly the way it’s planned, you know with COVID, game cancellations, missing out on some things, but honestly I’m just so grateful,” he said before the College Football Playoff semifinal against Clemson. “To represent Ohio State — I couldn’t ask for more.”

And then the Buckeyes got to face Clemson again. And this time, Cooper got to play.

‘Play your technique’

In one of the more iconic defensive plays in Ohio State’s thrashing of the Tigers last Friday, Clemson — already down 3 touchdowns — was trying to mount a drive.

With 10:54 to go in the game, on 1st-and-10 from the Ohio State 20, Trevor Lawrence dropped back, looked to his left, and immediately felt pressure. Cooper came quickly from the right, and barreled over the Clemson quarterback for a sack and a 6-yard loss. Cooper also forced a fumble, which dribbled ahead and was recovered by Clemson offensive tackle Will Putnam.

“I just feel like we got into a rhythm,” Cooper said of the defense. “Obviously when you first go out there, you don’t know how the game is going to be, how fast it’s going to be. And then once you actually settle down and see what they’re doing, it makes the game a lot slower and you’re able to play your technique.”

The Ohio State defense chased Lawrence around all night. Cooper was credited with 2 tackles, the strip sack and 3 quarterback hurries, while Travis Etienne was held to 32 yards on 10 carries.

Even though Cooper’s comeback 2020 season has been an abbreviated one, he’s still made the most of it. The Buckeyes won another B1G title. They avenged their loss to Clemson from last year. And on Monday they will play Alabama for the National Championship.

To top it off, the American Football Coaches Association named Cooper a 2020 Second Team All-American.

Seems like the decision to come back has worked out okay so far.

“To be honest, it’s still kind of surreal,” Cooper said after the Clemson win. “I’ve never done anything like this before.”