S.C. State graduate Mariel Cooper a quick fit for Citadel football

Mariel Cooper

Mariel Cooper

By: Jeff Hartsell Postandcourier.com

Mariel Cooper was in his first week at The Citadel this summer when tragedy struck. His 18-year-old brother was killed in a car accident back home in Sumter. Cooper, who had transferred to The Citadel from South Carolina State, was in a new place with new teammates, new coaches and not many old friends. But his new friends stepped up quickly.

“I had a rough patch when I got here,” Cooper said. “But the guys made me feel like a brother right away. The coaches, the whole team, they were constantly checking on me, telling me they were there for me. They did a wonderful job lifting me up and helping me through that time, making me feel part of the team.”

Cooper, a 5-11, 192-pound defensive back who played three seasons at S.C. State, has proven to be a quick fit with The Citadel football team. A graduate-student transfer with one season left to play, he’s already been a steadying influence on a young cornerback group. “No question, Coop was right on time,” said defensive passing game coordinator Joel Taylor, who coached Cooper at S.C. State. “He’s going to be good for us.”

The Citadel recruited Cooper out of Sumter High School, where he was a 2010 Shrine Bowl player and two-time all-state pick. But he chose S.C. State, and after redshirting one season helped the Orangeburg school win two MEAC championships and graduated with a degree in civil engineering technology. He made the MEAC all-academic team three straight years. But when Taylor left S.C. State for The Citadel, and defensive coordinator Mike Adams also departed, Cooper found himself with a set of new coaches, a degree and one more season of eligibility.

“They brought in some coaches with some different philosophies, and I’m not sure Coop felt he fit well with that,” Taylor said. “He gave me a call and said he wanted to make a change. He’s a hard-working kid with game experience, he won two championships at S.C. State and brings that to our defensive back room, which is kind of young. For me, it’s a win-win situation.” Said Cooper, “I wanted to maximize my college experience and play in another conference. Coach Taylor and I had a lot of success on defense at S.C. State. When I visited here, I loved the coaching staff and players, and felt like this was a new home for me.”

Tricky transfers

The Citadel has had grad-student transfers in the past, including quarterbacks Jeff Klein (from Auburn) and Willie Simmons (from Clemson) under former coach Ellis Johnson. A grad-student transfer is not part of the Corps of Cadets, but takes graduate school classes at The Citadel and is eligible for one season of football. Cooper will study sports management at The Citadel.

The Bulldogs also have a transfer from Georgia State in quarterback Grant Drakeford, who redshirted as a freshman last year at GSU. He will go through knob year as a member of the Corps of Cadets.

The military aspect and traditions of The Citadel, as well as the academic demands, make taking transfers tricky for the Bulldogs. “Those sophomore and junior transfers, we’re not going to get those kids,” said coach Mike Houston. “We’d have a hard time convincing them to come here, and if they came they’d have a hard time being eligible. We look at prep schools and freshmen, if the fit is there,” he said. “Or kids like Coop. The problem with finding a kid like Coop, a good fifth-year player, is that coaches are not going to want to let them go. We were fortunate with him.”

‘He showed out’
Cooper’s brother, Destin Wise, played football at Sumter High School and graduated this year. He was planning to go into the military, and had even considered attending The Citadel. But on June 14, Destin was killed in a car accident in Sumter.
“He was a big reason I came to The Citadel,” Cooper said.

Cooper had just reported to The Citadel for summer workouts when his brother died. He went home for a week to be with is family, then came back to his Citadel family. “He handled it as well as he possibly could,” Houston said. “His mom was very concerned about him, she called me and wanted to make sure we kept an eye on him. But he handled it great.”

So far, Cooper has handled things on the field just as well. Taylor and defensive coordinator Maurice Drayton wanted to start Cooper out with the second team when practice started. But when sophomore cornerback Ben Roberts came down with mononucleosis, Cooper was forced to begin practice with the first team. “We want guys to earn their spots,” Taylor said. “But that first day, there was no doubt that Coop is a ‘one.’ He came out here and showed out, and once he did that he gained instant credibility with the guys.”

Cooper’s experience will be valuable for a young secondary group that includes sophomore cornerback Dee Delaney. “It’s night and day in that (defensive back) room,” Houston said. “Last year, we started a former team manager (senior Walker Smith), a great kid, at one corner, and everybody else was a freshman. We had zero experience, and that showed up every day in practice. They were just immature and didn’t know what they didn’t know.

“What Coop has brought in is a work ethic, a way to approach practice. His work habits in the film room, the way he does everything is the difference between a fifth-year and a freshman. He has been a tremendous influence because everything the coaches preach to those corners, he’s doing.”

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