The toughest part of the NFL Combine for Washington State Cougars defensive lineman Xavier Cooper wasn't the drills or the on-field testing. It was the nonstop interview process.
"They put you in a room full of GMs, the owner, coaches, and they want to figure out what you're all about."
Cooper didn't get many of the weird questions teams are notorious for asking at the combine, but one team did ask him to spend some time looking back at the less-than-memorable moments from his college playing days.
"They pulled up a highlight of all my bad plays, and they made me pretty much go over it myself. They gave me the remote, and they pretty much wanted me to walk through what I did wrong, and that was kind of uncomfortable. They just wanted to see if I was going to make excuses, those kinds of things. So you just have to be calm and collected."
He didn't have too much to explain. When you turn on the tape, Cooper's good plays show up more often than the bad ones. Before talking to Cooper, I watched three of his games from 2014 over at Draft Breakdown -- against Utah, Oregon, and Stanford -- and the two things that jumped out to me were his first-step explosiveness and his violent and technically savvy hand usage.
"I credit a lot of that to my defensive line coach, Joe Salave'a," Cooper replied when I mentioned this. "He played eight years in the NFL, he's a hand guy, and that's what he coaches. That's what he emphasizes: being as violent as you want with your hands.
"So, every snap, coming off, I'm trying to get that guy off me, I don't want him to get into my body, I'm trying to go in a certain direction," he explained. "And I can use my explosiveness and my quickness to go that direction — but you know, he may have a technique that he wants to use with his hands to shoot me off. That's why I'm always active with my hands, so that's a big trait for a defensive lineman to have, especially going into the National Football League. You have to be violent with your hands."
It shows up. The first-punch isn't the only thing. Defensive lineman have to continue hand fighting until the whistle blows, in order to keep offensive linemen out of range and unable to lock on.
"Salave'a has had a huge impact," Cooper reiterated. "To me, he's the best defensive line coach in college football. He hasn't been coaching for a long time but he's already one of the best — that shows you how much work, and how much he cares for his guys. Down there, he's a technician. He's always trying to create, or do something that will help us on the field. So, he's helped me a lot, both physically as well as mentally."
This focus on hand-fighting and hand-violence is something that I broke down back in February with regards to the success that Seahawks defensive lineman Michael Bennett has seen as a pass rusher, and how Dan Quinn (now the Falcons head coach) influenced that with boxing and hand-fighting drills. Salave'a is obviously a heavy proponent for that emphasis and brought techniques he learned in the NFL to WSU, and it's something that could separate Cooper from the pack.
Unsurprisingly, Cooper singled out the Seahawks' disruptive defender when asked which players he looks to emulate.
"The guy that's sort of set the tone for a new era of defensive linemen is Michael Bennett," he said without hesitation. "You know, a penetrating defensive lineman. The way the league is going, a lot of teams are trying to run the read option, zone read. And penetration kills all of that."
"And, it helps the linebackers make plays too," he continued. "I think Michael Bennett and the Seahawks ... the way those guys are always coming off the ball, penetrating into the backfield and messing things up, that makes it easier for everybody, so I like his game. I like how Michael Bennett carries himself. You know, he's got a little attitude about him, so that's definitely a guy that I hope to, you know, I hope to reach that peak in my career."
Bennett's not just known for his hand use, either. He's got elite first-step explosiveness that allows him to knife past defenders and into the backfield, often before they can even get into their pass-set. Cooper has a little bit of that in him as well.
Put that first-step explosiveness together with a great club move to arm-under technique (watch him do this fundamental technique to perfection below), and you give yourself a shot to play on Sundays.
In addition to the hand-fighting techniques from Salave'a, Cooper also credited his background in soccer and basketball as reasons for his potential at the next level. Quickness, agility, and overall athleticism were strengths of his from a young age.
"Really at first, with me, it was from playing soccer. That was my first sport," he explained. "Soccer helped me because you've got to have quick feet. You've got to be fluid in your movements, you've got to be able to stop and go, and that will help you a lot, because that's how football is. You've got to be able to stop and go. You're not really running a mile, you're making explosive moves for 10 seconds, then you're stopping, and you're going again."
(He lines up on the left guard below.)
Pretty impressive start-stop and agility there.
"So, that's kind of how soccer is in some shape or form, and then when I went to basketball, as far as me turning my hips, and being able to move with a guy, you know, up and down the court, that helped a lot, so both of those sports translated well to football. You've got to be an athlete to play both sports."
And, in the NFL, you've got to be an athlete to see the field. With most teams these days, there are base packages against the run, and nickel packages that look to rush the passer. Cooper has the versatility to play outside on base downs, and inside on nickel looks. He explained the differences in mentality between the two.
"Rushing outside, things happen a little bit more slowly," he said.
"It's a different pace outside; you still have to be explosive and fast, but things are happening slower. Whereas inside, things happen so quickly. You've got to be able to react super, super quickly. I feel like that pays dividends — what I can do — because I'm so quick and I'm so explosive — right at the snap, I'm making a move and getting by you, so I think I'm going to excel both inside and outside because I have the athleticism for both."
"Some teams have said they want me at three-technique, some teams say five-technique, some teams said all over; so I've got a good value wherever I go."
In theory, he could play for either a 3-4 or a 4-3 defense. I personally see him fitting in very well with an attacking 4-3, like they run in Seattle or now Atlanta, or even in a Clinton McDonald type of role down in Tampa Bay. He can play outside as a five-technique and give you some rushing ability from there, but he was at his most disruptive when he lined up at the three-technique spot -- on the outside shoulder of the guard -- where he gets consistent one-on-ones in the rush. If you use him in this role early on in his career, he's going to be causing some havoc on third downs.
Cooper was told by the Draft Advisory Board to go back to school for his senior year (they give out grades for the first round, second round, and "go back to school"), but like many of his 2015 NFL Draft classmates, decided to forge ahead and declare for the pros anyway. His Combine numbers confirmed his decision. He ran the 40-yard dash in 4.86 seconds, at 6'3, 293 pounds. He's seen his stock rise with the help of that 40 time and a blistering short-shuttle (4.37 seconds).
He says he's "mentally and physically ready for the next step." In his mind a penchant for disruption in the backfield, his workout numbers and an exhausting but productive film session at the combine are enough for a team to call his name sometime in the early-to-mid rounds.