It's not as if Marshall Cooper needed to prove his toughness. It's just there is so much to learn right now that the senior linebacker didn't want to miss even a few minutes of a recent University of Tennessee at Chattanooga practice, despite one of his fingers being bent in a very unnatural position.
Perhaps no position group on the team is having to learn on the fly as much as Cooper's in the first spring under head coach Rusty Wright. It doesn't help that the former Hixson High School player, who led the Mocs in tackles last season with 98, is one of the few current UTC linebackers with extended playing time.
Things are especially thin alongside Cooper, with sophomore Ty Boeck and freshman Kohl Henke part of a small group competing for the other starting spot at inside linebacker.
"What stands out right now about the linebacking group is the limited numbers we have," Wright said. "That's the hardest spot to play in any defense because you have to be tied into the run game, tied to the pass game and react to blocks in front of you a whole lot faster than the guys on the back end.
"We have smart kids in there, though. Marshall Cooper has had a good spring. Ty Boeck has come a long way in a short amount of time, and we've moved Kohl Henke to inside linebacker, which will help him in the long run. I'm excited about the freshmen we're bringing in. Daniel Brent and Justin Sanders are more prototypical of what we've had here in the past," added Wright, a former Mocs player who worked as a UTC assistant from 1996 to 2002 and again from 2013 to 2016.
Cooper, an All-Southern Conference second-team selection last season, is handling a pair of jobs right now. While he's having to learn a new defense like everyone else, he's also filling the role of mentor to the guys who will play next to him. It's a role he relishes.
"It's a young group right now, but I'm having more fun right now than I ever have because I get to put them under my wing," Cooper said while still sporting a wrap on his dislocated finger. "It's a building group right now, but in a couple of years they will be the best group in the nation.
"It's tough for all of us right now because the defense has completely changed from what we've been. The biggest thing is to avoid the big guys and to get downhill faster, just being dogs out there."
The group at outside linebacker has a bit more depth, but with spring drills set to finish this weekend, Wright admitted there are very few knowns.
Jerrell Lawson, who started the last four games of UTC's 2018 season at outside linebacker, has moved back to safety. Among the candidates to start outside are former middle linebacker C.J. Winston, who played in 10 games as a freshman last year; seniors Ian Hayes, who has 21 games under his belt, and Adrian King, who was listed as a safety in 2018; and freshman Ben Brewton.
"Those guys have had good springs," Wright said. "Brewton has come a long way since January. Winston hasn't had enough reps because of class. They all have the tools to succeed out there. They are all long and can run, which gives us something to work with."
The scheme may be new, the verbiage different and some roles undetermined, but Cooper is optimistic UTC's defense will respond to the challenge.
"We've got to be strong-minded and hit everybody in the mouth," he said when asked what the key to quick success would be for his group. "As camp has gone on, that's come out even more. The young guys are picking it up quick. We've got to improve in spots, especially our communication, but if you ask me how we're going to be, this is going to be the best defense in the nation. For sure."