Former IUP All-American lineman Ethan Cooper drawn to Steelers' Mike Munchak
When the seventh round of the NFL Draft concluded and Ethan Cooper's name remained on the board, it seemed only logical for the IUP guard to sign with the Steelers.
First, there was IUP's close proximity to Pittsburgh, that 50-mile trek up the Parkway East and Route 22.
Then, there was the familiarity with Brandon Hunt, the Steelers pro scouting coordinator, who graduated from the Division II school.
The biggest reason, however, had nothing to do with distance or college allegiances.
Cooper was attracted to the Steelers because of his position coach, Hall of Famer Mike Munchak.
“That was, honestly, a big part of it,” Cooper said.
Munchak is entering his fourth season with the Steelers and not only has coached All-Pro first-rounders Maurkice Pouncey and David DeCastro, he has helped mold undrafted free agents B.J. Finney and Chris Hubbard into NFL role players.
IUP offensive line coach Mike Campolo, a former running back at Central Catholic and Woodland Hills, also believed the Steelers were the best fit for Cooper because of Munchak.
“I told him, ‘You're going to be coached there better than 31 other teams. You're going to play for the best offensive line coach in the NFL, a Hall of Famer at your position,' ” said Campolo, who's entering his 13th season as offensive line coach at his alma mater. “What more could you ask for if you are Ethan?”
The Steelers have not drafted an interior offensive lineman since selecting DeCastro in the first round in 2012. That trend continued this year, and the 6-foot-2, 322-pound Cooper was the only offensive lineman signed as an undrafted free agent. His goal is to follow in the footsteps of Finney and Hubbard, who each started games for the Steelers last season.
“I feel like everybody here is getting a legitimate chance,” Cooper said. “It's who wants it.”
Although he didn't play Division I football, Cooper was hardly a courtesy signing for the Steelers. After his senior season, Cooper was invited to the NFLPA All-Star game. This led to an invitation to the NFL Combine in February.
Cooper uses former New Orleans Saints guard Jahri Evans as an example of a Division II player — he attended PSAC-East school Bloomsburg — making it in the NFL. A fourth-round pick in 2006, Evans became the highest-paid guard in NFL history four years later.
“I'm just trying to open the same door he did coming from a small school and trying to really be the best me,” Cooper said.
IUP initially recruited Cooper, a two-way player at Central Dauphin East in Harrisburg, to play defense. Jim Smith, then IUP's linebackers coach, asked Campolo if he thought Cooper could play on the offensive line.
“You see about five clips and say, sure,” Campolo said. “He really showed the skills that were different from incoming freshmen, particularly at his position. He had a smoothness and athleticism to him early on.”
Cooper started three of IUP's final four games as a freshman, beginning a run of 37 consecutive starts through his senior season. Campolo said Cooper never missed a practice, let alone a game, during that time.
“His accountability and dependability were above everybody else.” Campolo said.
Before his senior season, Cooper was asked to move from left guard to right tackle, a position he had played some as a freshman. Cooper made the switch without complaint.
“He was a great leader here, unselfish,” Campolo said. “It was another way for him to display some skills that you see at tackle that you don't see at guard. I don't think it was a bad thing for him.”
Campolo said all 32 NFL teams had scouts show up at IUP to watch Cooper. He said almost half as many made calls to Cooper when it appeared he wouldn't be taken on the third day of the draft.
“Unfortunately, I wasn't drafted. But at the same time, I was waiting for an opportunity,” Cooper said. “I always have had a relationship with the Steelers and after I weighed my options, I felt like Pittsburgh was the best opportunity for me.”
Cooper was surprised by the number of snaps he got in the first two weeks of organized team activities. On Thursday, coach Mike Tomlin gave most of the starters off, providing another chance for Cooper to get noticed.
“It's been great for someone in my situation,” Cooper said. “I need as many reps as possible, so I can put myself on tape and show I can really play at this level.”