Cooper DeJean [1296x729]
Cooper DeJean [1296x729] (Credit: ESPN)

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Kirk Ferentz has an encyclopedic recall of Iowa players, the result of a quarter-century as Hawkeyes head coach, plus another nine years as an assistant.

Mention a current Hawkeye, and Ferentz reflexively lists two or three from his own past, noting details about their play style, top moments, personality, NFL path and more. But Cooper DeJean, Iowa's ubiquitous star defensive back, projected to go in the first round of the upcoming NFL draft, elicits a different type of response.

When watching DeJean last season, Ferentz kept thinking about a player he never coached or even met, who competed for Iowa and died more than a decade before Ferentz was born. The most hallowed name in program history and one of the state's sporting heroes, whose legacy is celebrated at every Iowa home game -- that's the comp Ferentz selects for DeJean.

"I don't know how many players have been better than him, however long we've been playing football, 1889," Ferentz said of DeJean. "Nile Kinnick's name is up on the stadium."

Kinnick is Iowa's only Heisman Trophy winner. In 1939, he played 402 of 420 minutes, contributed to 107 of the team's 130 points scored, led the nation in kickoff return yards and intercepted eight passes, a team record now shared. He's in Iowa's athletics Hall of Fame for both football and basketball, and caught pitches from Bob Feller on an American Legion team. Kinnick excelled at whatever he did and wherever he did it -- from his hometown of Adel, Iowa, to the stadium that would later bear his name.

DeJean is shaping his legend from similar Iowa soil, as a four-sport star from the tiny town of Odebolt, and an alphabet soup high school (OABCIG) within the state that delivered "Field of Dreams." His high school career featured championships and highlights, but also intrigue, because he competed in such a sparsely populated area. His most famous play at Iowa didn't actually count.

DeJean's post-Iowa path will be dramatically different from Kinnick's. ESPN's Mel Kiper and others expect him to become the first Iowa defensive back taken in the first round of the NFL draft under Ferentz, and the first from Iowa since Tom Knight went No. 9 overall in 1997. Although DeJean played multiple defensive back positions at Iowa and dazzled on punt returns, he's being evaluated primarily as a cornerback.

"It just seems like everything he does, he's good and he wins," Ferentz said of DeJean.

So, who is Cooper DeJean, and why do Iowa's program stewards already consider him a living legend?

TYLER BARNES WILL owe Travis Schroeder for life.

Barnes, Iowa's director of recruiting, used to live next door to Schoeder, not far from Iowa's campus. A native of Odebolt, Schroeder would pepper his neighbor about an emerging star athlete from his hometown.

Schroeder had never seen DeJean play but heard all the buzz. Plus, he knew DeJean's family. DeJean's grandfather, Al Wilke, coached Schroeder in high school football. When DeJean's parents moved to town from Sioux Falls, South Dakota, they opened a bar and grill -- originally called Cobe's, for Cooper and his younger brother Beckett, and now called The Bowling Alley -- that is owned by Schroeder's relatives.

So it goes in Odebolt, a town of fewer than 1,000 residents in the northwest part of the state.

"You can get from one end to another in probably five minutes," DeJean said. "We've got no stoplights, we've got two bar and grills, two gas stations, probably seven total stop signs."

Added Schroeder: "You'll drive through town and you might not see a car. You might not see a person."

While attending an Iowa basketball game with Barnes, Schroeder again told his friend to consider DeJean.

"Trav," Schroeder remembered Barnes jokingly saying, "there are no D-I athletes coming out of Odebolt."

The truth: Iowa prided itself on identifying small-town prospects from the state, often overlooked as recruits, and developing them into big-stage stars. The team has sent several to the NFL, such as Panthers linebacker Josey Jewell, who grew up on a farm in Decorah (population: 7,747), or Vikings tight end T.J. Hockenson, from Chariton (population: 4,220). The Odebolt area hadn't produced many top-division players, but Trever Ryen, who attended DeJean's high school, walked on at Iowa State and became an All-Big 12 punt returner and a solid wide receiver.

Barnes watched film of DeJean.

"Maybe this kid's got a chance," he told himself.

DeJEAN COMPETED IN football, basketball, track and baseball, and, as a young boy, wrestling and soccer. He played everything -- not just because he wanted to -- but also out of necessity.

Odebolt and its surrounding towns -- Arthur, Battle Creek and Ida Grove -- need their best athletes to participate in all sports. The towns feed into the same middle school, in Odebolt, and the same high school, about 15 minutes from DeJean's home, in Ida Grove. Initially two separate school districts spread out over four counties and 259 square miles, they merged in 2018 to form OABCIG.

Sports resonated in the area, especially for the DeJeans. Cooper's father, Jason, played basketball at Huron University in South Dakota. His mom, Katie, played basketball and softball at Briar Cliff University in Sioux City, Iowa. Wilke, Katie's father, coached and was involved in sports, often taking Cooper and his younger brothers to fields and courts around town.

"That's something they stressed to me: 'Play all the sports, there's no need to specialize in one,'" Cooper said. "That's the only time in your life where you can play multiple sports, so why not play all four in high school?"

At OABCIG High, he was a three-time all-state selection in football with two state titles. His credentials included: 1,832 career points in basketball, more than Harrison Barnes, the McDonald's All-American out of Ames High School now with the Sacramento Kings; state champion for long jump and 100-meter dash as a senior; all-state honors in football, basketball and track as a senior; three letters in baseball, which is played in the summer, while also juggling AAU basketball. In 2021, DeJean was named Iowa High School Male Athlete of the Year by the Des Moines Register.

Many pegged DeJean -- at 6 foot and ½ -- to play basketball in college.

"If he was 6-4 or 6-5, he probably wouldn't be playing football," Jason DeJean said.

Larry Allen, DeJean's football coach at OABCIG High, didn't have many reference points in predicting DeJean's college path.

"One kid that played at [Northern Iowa] and one kid that played at Iowa State is all I've ever had, so you didn't really understand the talent level," Allen said. "A few people asked: Is this what a D-I guy looks like? Is he really that good? He's pretty dang good, but you just wonder."

DeJean came to Iowa's campus 12 or 13 times, including the team's football camp, but didn't secure an offer right away, for two reasons. He needed a position after logging snaps at quarterback, wide receiver and defensive back for OABCIG. He also needed a personality.

"He could sit on a Zoom call and just stare at you for two hours without saying a word," Barnes said. "This kid, does he have a pulse? Is there a heartbeat? Cooper, just give us something. Smile, laugh. He was just so serious."

DeJean was very reserved, but his athletic success reverberated, leading to an Iowa offer. Many of DeJean's best highlights came on the basketball court, where he began dunking the summer before his freshman year of high school. So in January 2020, Barnes made the trek to Odebolt for a basketball game. Coaches from two other major conference schools also attended. Barnes remembers them fussing over what position DeJean would play. Other than Iowa, DeJean had offers from only FCS programs in the Dakotas.

As Barnes watched, DeJean opened the game with five consecutive dunks.

"Three of them were over 6-foot-4 guys," Barnes said. "I'm just sitting there, giggling, like, 'You [other schools] are nuts. This kid is something. I don't know what he is. But you don't see that in Iowa very often, those type of athletic traits.'"

Barnes texted Iowa's staff: He's the real deal. DeJean wanted to play quarterback, though, and Iowa pegged him for defense. He had official visits to Virginia and Kansas State scheduled but canceled them after COVID-19 hit in March 2020.

Around that time, Barnes texted DeJean, telling him that he belonged at Iowa, and to trust the team's projection for him, as "a high-level safety." To Barnes' surprise, DeJean responded and committed on the spot.

"We lucked into him," Barnes said. "I wish I could say we had a great evaluation, but thank god for my neighbor Travis."

LEGENDS ARE MOLDED through moments, and DeJean delivered plenty, both before and after he came to Iowa.

There was his final high school game, the 2020 state championship against Van Meter at Northern Iowa's UNI-Dome. In the final five minutes, he blocked an extra-point attempt to keep OABCIG at a single-score deficit, returned a punt 14 yards and then scored a touchdown and the tying two-point conversion, both on runs, with 1:30 left.

Van Meter fumbled the ensuing kickoff, recovered by DeJean's younger brother, Beckett. On the next play, Cooper kept the ball, ran to his left, wriggled free of a defender, stopped, reversed field, broke two more tackles and scored the winning touchdown. OABCIG won the final 25 games of DeJean's high school career and its first two state titles. He accounted for 9,520 total yards and 132 touchdowns during the stretch.

"He did everything," Ferentz said. "Some guys just seem to do things other people can't do."

Cooper barely played as a freshman at Iowa, not even making the travel roster for early games such as the Cy-Hawk clash at Iowa State. But he found a role on special teams and started the regular-season finale against Nebraska at safety.

DeJean's playmaking prowess was on full display in 2022. After a quiet season opener, he had interceptions in his next three games, scoring his first touchdown on a 45-yard return against Rutgers. In a 24-10 win against Wisconsin that season, DeJean had a pick-six, 10 tackles (one for loss) and 81 punt return yards, including a 41-yard runback. He also downed a punt at the Wisconsin 1-yard line. He finished with three pick-sixes that fall, setting Iowa's single-season record and tying the career mark.

His most impressive play came last season and didn't even count. Iowa trailed Minnesota 12-10 late in the fourth quarter and seemed unlikely to generate points from its woeful offense. After Iowa forced a three-and-out, DeJean fielded a punt off a bounce near midfield, right beside the Minnesota sideline.

DeJean eluded the grasp of two Gophers, raced up the sideline, cut back through the arm of another and then outraced Kerry Brown for the go-ahead touchdown with 1:21 left. Had Kinnick ever been louder?

"Probably would have been the greatest play in the history of Iowa football had it counted," Ferentz said. "I'm still trying to figure out how that wasn't a legal play."

After a review, officials ruled that DeJean had made an invalid fair catch signal by waving his left arm before scooping up the ball. Still, it put DeJean's game-breaking abilities on full display.

"He's got great speed and great ball skills, but his ability to be balanced and his footwork is so good," defensive coordinator Phil Parker said. "He's kind of a rare guy. Everybody said, 'Wow, look at what you did to Cooper.' Well, Cooper did that to himself. Cooper made who he is today because of the drive that he has to be great."

NILE KINNICK DID it all for Iowa. His team records on offense and defense lasted for decades. His Big Ten record for single-game punt return yards spanned from 1939 until Maryland's William Likely broke it in 2015. Although Iowa has popularized "Punting is Winning" in recent years, Kinnick still holds records for single-game punts (16) and punt yards (731).

DeJean shined on defense and special teams, but a drumbeat grew for him to see time on offense, especially as Iowa reached historic lows for production.

"There were signs up around town," Jason DeJean said. "There was a place in Ida Grove that had a billboard: Put Cooper on offense. I would have loved to see more of that, but it didn't work out."

As Ferentz mulled whether to use Cooper on offense, he remembered what his predecessor Hayden Fry once said: If Ohio State loses a player, the next one might be better. We don't have that here. In mid-November, Ferentz relented and DeJean started getting reps on offense. But during a practice he fractured his left fibula, ending his season.

"There's a lot of irony in that," Ferentz said.

DeJean still received consensus All-America honors despite missing the final four games, including the Big Ten championship. He won the Big Ten's individual awards for defensive back and return specialist.

If DeJean had elected to return as a senior in 2024, Ferentz ensured he would have had a more significant role for the Hawkeyes' offense.

"I told him if he came back, he'd be one of those guys like Nile Kinnick, put his name on a building," Parker said. "I never saw Nile Kinnick play, but all I can say is [DeJean] is the version of what I think he would be today."

On Jan. 4, DeJean declared for the draft. While recovering from leg surgery, he attended the NFL combine but didn't participate in on-field tests. He started to run at full speed in February, but did only the bench press at Iowa's pro day last month. DeJean is set to run the 40-yard dash and participate in all drills and tests for teams Monday in Iowa City. According to ESPN's Adam Schefter, DeJean sent a letter to NFL clubs last week informing them he has been cleared to return to all football activities.

He's the latest in a line of notable defensive backs under Ferentz and Parker, who coached the secondary for his first 13 years on staff before taking over as coordinator. Iowa has had 17 defensive backs selected since the 2000 draft, including eventual All-Pros in Desmond King, Micah Hyde and Bob Sanders. Since the Big Ten launched its individual position awards in 2011, Iowa has won six times with six different players. No other team has won more than twice.

The Hawkeyes also have consistently produced first-round picks, 13 in all under Ferentz, including two last year and another in 2022. But none played defensive back.

"If you had retro picks, then we'd have more first-rounders," Ferentz said. "Bob Sanders should have been a first-rounder, and if he was 6-foot, I'm sure he would have been. But if he was 6-foot, he would have gone to Penn State and they would have recruited him. But he was 5-foot-8, and he didn't.

"But it'd be nice if it happens, mostly just for Cooper's sake, a nice feather in his cap."

Much of DeJean's NFL evaluation is assessing what he will be at the next level. In 2022, he started 10 games at cornerback and three at the cash position, a safety-linebacker hybrid. He practiced early in his career at safety, but started every game last fall at corner before the injury.

"Some teams might think he's a nickel, some teams might think he's a corner, some teams might think he's a safety, but he's only going to play one," an NFL scout said, adding that how DeJean runs Monday will be a significant factor. "He's going to get drafted high enough that you draft him for that position."

The first-round projections for DeJean -- Kiper has him at No. 21 on his latest Big Board -- are as a cornerback, where he would be an NFL rarity. The league has had a few white cornerbacks over the years, but none as a consistent starter since Jason Sehorn, who started 73 games for the Giants from 1996 to 2002.

During a media session at the combine, DeJean faced questions about being a white cornerback, just like his friend and Iowa teammate, Riley Moss, did the year before. Moss memorably responded, "Obviously, I look different. I don't play different."

"I believe I can play corner," DeJean said. "I have the size and speed to do so. But with my athleticism, I understand the talk of moving to safety, playing the nickel, moving me around the defense. At the end of the day, you put me out on the field, I'm going to find the ball and try to make plays and impact the defense in some way."

DeJean is surprised to learn that he would become the first defensive back selected in the first round under Ferentz. He's flattered by the comparisons to Kinnick, who he called "a damn good player" and whose name he said is synonymous with Iowa football.

When it comes to legacy, though, DeJean's thoughts go back to Odebolt, where he takes pictures and signs autographs every time he visits, and where he plans to watch the draft with family and friends.

"I've been blessed to be in this position, growing up in a small town," he said. "My biggest thing is just being an inspiration to the kids around my area, to show them if you put everything into what you want to do, down the road, you can achieve big dreams."