Florida International U

Coach Cooper new to position at FIU, but not to the defensive game

Ron Cooper is entering his second season as assistant head coach and his first as defensive coordinator. Cooper was the team’s defensive backs coach in 2015.
Ron Cooper is entering his second season as assistant head coach and his first as defensive coordinator. Cooper was the team’s defensive backs coach in 2015. dsantiago@elnuevoherald.com

“Fifteen to 50!”

That phrase, yelled by new FIU defensive coordinator Ron Cooper, has been heard often the past couple of weeks as the Panthers close in on their Sept. 1 home season-opener against Indiana.

Cooper will shout his catchphrase after a big hit — meaning that one of his defenders would get 15 to 50 years of prison time had the “assault” not been sanctioned by football.

The saying is not meant to be taken literally. It’s just a way for Cooper to relate to players who weren’t even born when he began his second decade of coaching.

Cooper is “new” in the sense that head coach Ron Turner picked him to replace Matt House, who is now the inside linebackers coach and special teams coordinator at the University of Kentucky.

But Cooper, 54, is hardly new in terms of his experience.

He coached in the NFL with the Tampa Bay Bucs in 2002. He has been a college head coach at Eastern Michigan (1993-94), Louisville (1995-97) and Alabama A&M (1998-2001), compiling a combined record of 45-55.

Cooper has also been the defensive coordinator at Murray State (87-88), UNLV (1990) and Mississippi State (2003).

Clearly, Cooper, who coached FIU’s defensive backs last year, is no novice.

But he has a difficult task this season — fixing a defense that was shredded often in 2015.

The Panthers gave up 63 points to Western Kentucky, 52 to Marshall, 42 to Middle Tennessee, 36 to Indiana and 31 to both FAU and Charlotte en route to a 5-7 record.

So what can be expected from FIU’s defense this year?

“When the ball is snapped, we’re playing full speed and in the right position,” Cooper said. “And when the play is over and the whistle blows, all 11 guys are around the ball.

“If we play with unmatched effort — that will make up for a lot of mistakes. We may not be the best defense, but we’re going to try to be the best effort-giving defense around.”

Cooper has yet to decide whether he will coach from on the field, where he can communicate directly with his players, or in a sky box, where he can see the entire play develop.

But he does know that the strength of his defense is at linebacker. Middle linebacker Anthony Wint, a junior from Homestead High, is a first-team All-Conference USA preseason pick, and has 21 career starts.

Outside linebackers Treyvon Williams of Miami Norland and Davison Colimon of West Palm Beach Suncoast are back after missing most of last season due to injuries. They have combined for 27 starts — 16 by Colimon, who is a 23-year-old veteran.

“We‘ve got a good group in general,” safety Niko Gonzalez said of the defense. “But our linebackers are top-of-the-line guys. I 100 percent believe in our linebackers.”

Gonzalez, a junior from Hialeah High, returns to lead the secondary. There’s also some experience at defensive tackle with seniors Imarjaye Albury and Leonard Washington. But FIU will be breaking in new starters at defensive end and cornerback.

That’s where Cooper and his staff will come in, teaching, correcting, motivating and encouraging the 43 defensive players on the roster.

Cooper’s style is appreciated, according to several defensive leaders.

“Coach Coop has more personality,” Wint said. “It’s not that Coach House didn’t have personality, but [Cooper] is a lot more relatable to us. He comes out with a lot of passion, and we follow his lead.”