ashland.news
February 22, 2024

SOU alumnus named Oregon State inside linebackers coach

AJ Cooper (3) in action for the SOU Raiders. Ashland Daily Photo/Al Case photo
December 31, 2023

AJ Cooper played on three of the most successful Raider teams ever

By Ashley Conklin for Ashland News

AJ Cooper knows what it takes to win at the highest level in college football.

Cooper was a key player for three of the most successful football teams in Southern Oregon University history from 2014-18 as an undersized cornerback from Las Vegas.

AJ Cooper

Oregon State is counting on Cooper to bring that championship pedigree to the Beavers after new Oregon State head coach Trent Bray hired the 27-year-old as the Beavers inside linebackers coach early in December.

Cooper is returning to Corvallis, where he was a graduate assistant for the Beavers for the 2021-22 seasons, after spending the 2023 season as the linebackers coach at Big Sky Conference power Sacramento State.

A lot of the lessons Cooper learned while playing for Southern Oregon have shaped the coach he is today.

“I call (Oregon) home so I’m just I’m just super grateful for everybody that’s been a part of this, this journey with me, and I just look forward to continuing to develop and be appreciative along the process,” Cooper said. “I’m ready to go. And I still had a chip on my shoulder from my days as a 5-(foot)-8 corner playing college football.”

Cooper didn’t have to look far to see football success growing up. His father, Hernandez “Hunkie” Cooper played six positions in his two collegiate seasons at UNLV and was an honorable mention All-American return specialist. Hunkie Cooper went on to a standout Arena Football League career with the Arizona Rattlers. When he retired, he held the league’s career record for all-purpose yards, and was inducted to the AFL Hall of Fame in 2011. Hunkie Cooper coached in the AFL and later spent six seasons as the head coach at Canyon Springs High School in North Las Vegas before moving to the collegiate level. He was the receivers coach at San Diego State for eight seasons and spent the 2023 season as the director of player development at UNLV.

AJ Cooper played for his father at Canyon Springs High. It was the coach at rival Las Vegas High, Josh Winfield, who led to Cooper signing with Southern Oregon. Winfield became the Raiders’ defensive coordinator in 2013 and reached into the Las Vegas area to help sign seven players out of the class of 2014 for Southern Oregon.

Cooper said Winfield “understood that we were under-recruited.”

AJ Cooper

“Southern Oregon was the only visit I took in college,” Cooper said. “And I liked the dorm. That’s why I wanted to go, I liked the dorms … it was cool. There were four or five of us from the same neighborhood. We grew up together, played Little League together and we all kind of just agreed to go together. We kind of made Ashland, Oregon, a home away from home.”

Playing at Southern Oregon presented adjustments for Cooper, too. In Las Vegas, he was used to playing for his father and said in Las Vegas, fathers, uncles, and other family members coached most people.

While that culture was different at Southern Oregon, Cooper adjusted quickly under head coach Craig Howard, who, Cooper said, “changed his life.” Berk Brown, who replaced Winfield as defensive coordinator on the 2014 NAIA national championship team, and receivers coach Matt Adkins also made huge impacts on Cooper during his playing days.

After redshirting during the 2014 season, Cooper started for four years at cornerback for the Raiders, who made a repeat appearance in the 2015 national championship game, but lost to Marian University (Indiana), the team they beat the previous year in the championship game. The Raiders also made it to the national semifinals in Cooper’s 2017 junior season. He finished his Southern Oregon career with 198 tackles and nine interceptions.

Cooper had a different position coach all four college seasons he played and, even while starting as a freshman, other players looked to him for guidance and leadership and “it got to a point where guys just started calling me ‘Coach Coop.’”

One thing that never changed, Cooper said, was the championship mentality installed by Howard and his staff.

“That starts with the standard that was set in 2014,” he said, “when I walked on campus, that’s when it kind of clicked for me. So, I got toward the end of my senior year and some of these guys who had successful careers look to me for help, and I was always there to give it to him because of the preparation of work that I put in.”

AJ Cooper in SOU Raiders gear.

Cooper graduated from Southern Oregon with a degree in business administration in 2019 before moving on to Central Washington as a graduate assistant. When the COVID-19 pandemic wiped out the Wildcats’ 2020 season, Cooper used his father’s connections to do clinics via Zoom and in person as far away as Couer d’Alene, Idaho, to help get his name out in the coaching ranks.

Scheduled to earn his master’s degree in athletic administration in July 2021, Cooper accelerated his academic work to graduate in March to coincide with graduate assistant hiring season.

It all paid off when Oregon State head coach Jonathan Smith direct messaged Cooper on Twitter, encouraging him to apply for a position with the Beavers after Smith had received phone calls from various people recommending Cooper for a position.

Cooper spent his two seasons with the Beavers working with all the defensive position groups and running the scout team. The Beavers appeared in back-to-back bowls in 2021-22 and routed Florida in the Las Vegas Bowl to cap a 10-win season in 2022. That led to a role as the linebackers coach at Sacramento State under Andy Thompson, who was promoted to head coach after Troy Taylor became the Stanford head coach.

The Hornets reached the second round of the FCS (Football Championship Subdivision, formerly known as Division I-AA) playoffs earlier this month to cap an 8-5 season after advancing to the quarterfinals in 2022. Cooper wasn’t planning to leave the Hornets after one season until Bray, who was the defensive coordinator during most of Cooper’s time at Oregon State, came calling.

“It says a lot for him to offer a 27-year-old position coach, a young Black kid, to come in and coach his room that he’s done such a great job with,” Cooper said, “be able to pass that on to me and trust me with that room.

“At one point I’d like to be a coordinator and then move on to become a head coach. But right now, I’m the linebacker coach of Oregon State and my mission is to keep this thing rolling. My immediate goals right now are to just embrace the community, continue to develop these guys, bring in Oregon State type of recruits and then get this program to continue to build.”

Ashley Conklin spent 30-plus years as a sportswriter, sports editor and copy editor at four different newspapers and was the communications manager for World Athletics Championships Oregon22 in Eugene, Oregon. Email him at ashteri@comcast.net. Email Ashland.news at news@ashland.news.

Bert Etling

Bert Etling

Bert Etling is the executive editor of Ashland.news. Email him at betling@ashland.news.

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