In the first start of his college football career this fall, Fahn Cooper played in front of nearly 85,000 fans in Gainesville, Fla.
In 91-degree heat.
Against a Florida team that ranks fifth in the nation in total defense.
In a stadium called “The Swamp,” which has been home to three Heisman Trophy winners and three national championship teams.
“I wouldn’t have wanted it any other way, especially in that environment,” said Cooper, a Crystal Lake South graduate.
Though his Bowling Green team lost, 27-14, that steamy September day, the lessons Cooper learned have helped him forge a solid season as the starting left offensive tackle as a redshirt freshman.
“The biggest thing for me was just getting used to playing in games again,” said Cooper, who will start his 13th consecutive game Thursday for the Falcons (8-4) against No. 24 San Jose State (10-2) in the Military Bowl in Washington, D.C.
Cooper is one of six local players on Football Bowl Subdivision rosters preparing for bowl games, including Nick Adams (Central Michigan), Hayden Baker (Northwestern), Jake Bernstein (Vanderbilt), Jon Budmayr (Wisconsin) and Scott Taylor (Northern Illinois).
After spending most of his high school career on the defensive line, Cooper worked last season as a right tackle for Bowling Green and did not expect to redshirt.
“I wasn’t on the scout team,” he said. “I prepared as if I was playing in games, and I was playing with the [first- and second-teams].”
Late in the season, Cooper was officially redshirted. After spring practice, he was moved from the right side to the left side.
“He’s got a tremendous amount of pressure on his shoulders,” Bowling Green offensive line coach Bill Durkin said. “He’s got arguably the most important job on our line at left tackle, protecting the blind side of our quarterback.”
Cooper, one of three new starters on the line for Bowling Green, is part of a group that has allowed only 13 sacks, the second-lowest total in the Mid-American Conference. The line also has helped running back Anthon Samuel gain 1,021 yards and scored 10 TDs on the ground.
“He’s had success more in the run game than the pass game,” Durkin said. “He’s still learning those skills. [Pass protection] is a very unnatural skill. You’ve got to learn to backpedal and block a defensive end who’s running straight ahead, at full speed, and knows where the football is.”
Being at the mercy of defensive linemen is nothing new to Cooper, especially in passing situations.
“Sometimes, I get nervous when it’s third (down)-and-long,” Cooper said with a laugh. “You just have to take away things that [pass rushers] like to do.”
Cooper said he has devoted more time to becoming “a student of the game” by studying opponents and working tirelessly in the weight room.
He also has been a resource for the team’s five true freshman offensive linemen.
“Last year, I asked a bunch of questions,” Cooper said. “With the five new guys we had come in, I’ve learned just as much by helping them out and showing them what I’ve learned.”
After arriving on campus at 305 pounds, Cooper said he quickly lost 20 pounds but has gained the weight back through work in the weight room.
“If you were to see a picture of when I got here and now, my body is totally different,” he said. “I’m much more athletic and I’m much stronger.”
Cooper also is exhibiting much more poise, according to Durkin.
“When he does make a mistake or a penalty, he doesn’t let it affect him,” Durkin said. “That’s hard for a young guy.”
Cooper credited his teammates for their support during tough times on the field.
“The guys around me really help,” he said. “We don’t let each other get down. We were playing Ohio and I got called for a false start, so it was first-and-15. The next play, the back had a 17-yard run. I ran up to him and said, ‘Thanks.’ ”
A look at some of the upcoming bowl games featuring local players:
Little Caesars Pizza Bowl
Today in Detroit
Central Michigan (6-6) vs. Western Kentucky (7-5), 6:30 p.m., ESPN
About 155 miles separate Central Michigan’s campus in Mount Pleasant from Ford Field in Detroit, the site of the Chippewas’ bowl matchup against Western Kentucky.
“We have a lot of guys on our roster from Michigan,” said Nick Adams, a long snapper for CMU from Crystal Lake South. “I know a lot of students who’ve already got tickets. It’s going to be like a home game.”
Adams, the team’s No. 2 snapper, saw action against Navy this season.
“I was perfect on all of my snaps,” he said.
CMU rebounded this season from a 2-5 start to finish 6-6 and earn a bowl berth. “We have a lot of senior leadership on this team,” Adams said. “We just had a lot of breaks that didn’t go our way early on.”
Music City Bowl
Monday in Nashville, Tenn.
Vanderbilt (8-4) vs. North Carolina State (7-5),
11 a.m., ESPN
The first impact Crystal Lake South grad Jake Bernstein, at 6-4 and 295 pounds, had on Vanderbilt’s offense this season was from the backfield.
As part of a power run formation, Bernstein was used early this season as a successful blocking back.
As Vandy put together a six-game winning streak to end the season, Bernstein has started three games at right guard and two at left guard.
“I had the physical part,” said Bernstein, a redshirt freshman. “That’s what got me here. I’d say it’s my mental aspect (that has come the farthest). When you’re 19 years old and going against guys who are 22, 23 years old, you have to have your head on straight if you want to excel.”
Bernstein started at left guard in the team’s final regular-season game, a 55-21 win against Wake Forest.
Tuesday in Jacksonville, Fla.
Northwestern (9-3) vs. Mississippi State (8-4), 11 a.m., ESPN2
After playing on NU’s scout team last season, Cary-Grove grad Hayden Baker quickly has moved up the depth chart as the Wildcats’ second-team center this season.
“Freshman year is a huge transition,” Baker said. “Sophomore year is about getting the hang of things.”
Baker is part of a speedy NU offense that is averaging 230.9 rushing yards a game, which ranks 14th nationally, and 31.5 points.
“We go fast and we can dictate the tempo of the game,” Baker said.
Northwestern, whose three losses include an overtime defeat against Michigan and a one-point loss to Nebraska, is seeking to end a nine-game bowl losing streak.
The school’s last bowl win was a 20-14 victory against California in the 1948 Rose Bowl.
Tuesday in Los Angeles
Wisconsin (8-5) vs. Stanford (11-2), 4 p.m., ESPN
Redshirt junior quarterback Jon Budmayr will spend another Rose Bowl on the sideline for the Badgers because of persistent nerve injuries in his right arm that have limited his ability to throw a football.
Budmayr, a Marian Central grad, played in three games in 2010 as the backup to Scott Tolzien but has missed the 2011 and 2012 seasons.
“I want to get healthy and get back to a normal lifestyle,” Budmayr recently told the Northwest Herald. “Sure, I want to be a big part of the team. But, I also miss golf. I miss swimming in the pool with my brothers. I miss a lot of things I can’t do.”
In 2010, Budmayr was 8 for 10 passing in three games, including a 74-yard touchdown toss against Indiana.
Tuesday in Miami
Northern Illinois (12-1) vs. Florida State (11-2),
7:30 p.m., ESPN
Count Marian Central grad Scott Taylor among those still pinching themselves about NIU’s BCS bowl game appearance.
“It’s still unbelievable that we’re going,” said Taylor, a freshman offensive lineman who is redshirting this season. “When [former head coach Dave Doeren] was recruiting me, he said I would win here. This just confirms that I made the right decision.”
The 6-2, 285-pound Taylor, who played tackle at Marian, has moved to center and is playing on the scout team this season.
“The biggest adjustment was snapping the ball, then trying to block somebody,” he said. “I’ve learned a lot about tendencies, and I’ve gotten better with my technique.”
Twice this season, Taylor was NIU’s scout team player of the week on offense.