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To Cooper DeJean

It was an incredible ride. Go be great.

Michigan State v Iowa Photo by Matthew Holst/Getty Images

As you are surely aware of by now, Cooper DeJean announced that he is declaring for the NFL Draft. He made the announcement last Thursday afternoon.

Selfishly, my first thought was, “Damn, this sucks.” Let’s be honest - we never got the full DeJean experience. Sports can be cruel, and this falls in that category. What we had was cut short by a freak occurrence and /snaps fingers just like that, it was over. That is cruel to fans, cruel to DeJean’s teammates, and especially cruel to DeJean.

Fortunately that thought lasted for all of about 5 seconds and was replaced by, “Well obviously he has to go - he’ll be a first round pick!” Cooper DeJean had to go pro, even if there were rumors swirling that he wasn’t 100 percent gone and this choice was difficult. There was still unfinished business with Iowa. Rumors, of course, but rumors I believe. This dude is a Hawk through and through and he bleeds black and gold. This was not an easy decision for him. But it’s the right call. He’s going to be unfathomably rich in a few months, beyond anything Iowa’s NIL program could offer (this is your reminder to join up with Swarm). Right now, Mel Kiper has DeJean as the 13th overall prospect in the 2024 draft, and the top draft-eligible cornerback (that linked article is to Adam Rittenberg’s story on CDJ’s announcement and contained in that is a link to Kiper’s prospects, but that is ESPN+ so behind a paywall). He’s going to make A LOT of money in a very short period of time. So congratulations to Cooper DeJean - he’s going to be an awesome player at the next level. Whatever “it” is, he has it in abundance.

DeJean finished his career with 4 total touchdowns - 3 in 2022 on interception returns, and 1 in 2023 on a punt return, a 70-yard jaw-dropper against Michigan State. He should have 5 total, but let’s not go there.

I’ve been kicking this around since we learned that DeJean’s season, and probably his Iowa career, was over. Who is his Iowa comp, where does he rank on the all-time list of Kirk Ferentz players, and where does he land on the list of players I’ve seen in my years watching the Hawks? This was a fun exercise, considering both Iowa players as well as opponents, but I decided not to pursue the last question, as he’s not in that upper echelon simply because - humble brag - I’ve seen 4 Heisman winners play in Kinnick Stadium (Desmond Howard - yes, I’m old, I’m a man, I’m 40, I attended the 1991 Iowa-Michigan game - Ron Dayne, Eric Crouch, and Troy Smith), plus a Heisman runner-up (Brad Banks), plus guys that were drafted with the top pick (Courtney Brown) or in the top 3 (Robert Gallery, LeVar Arrington, Simeon Rice, Kevin Hardy), so he’s not quite at that level. But writing all of that pushed this out to 2,000+ words and I had to reel this in somewhere.

Obviously, the first and best Iowa comp is Tim Dwight. Similar build, though DeJean is taller (Dwight is listed at just 5-8). Dwight had the elusiveness DeJean possesses and probably more straight-line speed, though I just don’t recall seeing DeJean have to turn the jets on. Dwight turned the jets on all the time. Dwight in the open field, sprinting with people, was a sure-fire touchdown. For our younger audience, you had to see Dwight to really understand the reverence people had (and still have) for him. An Iowa City High prospect, he was the Next Big Thing for Hayden Fry. He backed the hype up with over 2,200 receiving yards, 21 receiving touchdowns, and 5 punt return touchdowns. Dwight finished seventh in Heisman Trophy voting in 1997 on a team that lost every close game that year and finished a disappointing 7-5 (that team was loaded offensively with Dwight and Tavian Banks - another insanely talented player that would’ve had a great career in either soccer if he went that route or football were it not for injury when he made the NFL - but injuries at quarterback knocked that season off the rails in the back end of the schedule). He also had an excellent NFL career, making the all-rookie team in 1998 and playing in the Super Bowl that year, returning a kickoff for a touchdown in a loss to the Denver Broncos.

His punt returns are what Dwight is mostly remembered for, to the point the Big Ten partially named the postseason returner award after him (DeJean, of course, won the award this year and is the third Iowa player to win it after Ihmir Smith-Marsette and Charlie Jones). How about this punt return at the end of the first half at Michigan, in 1997? That looks a helluva lot like Cooper DeJean.

Want more? Yes, yes you do.

Those returns ALL look like Cooper DeJean. Dwight was different of course - offensive player versus defensive, so he had the ball all the time and probably should’ve had it more. At least in the returner category though, they are kindred spirits. Tim Dwight is Cooper DeJean. Cooper DeJean is Tim Dwight.

More difficult is, where does DeJean rank in terms of Kirk Ferentz players? This is, admittedly, a difficult task given the track record from Ferentz players. The list of offensive players is somewhat small - Brad Banks and Shonn Greene are the two most outstanding skill players of the Ferentz era, but of course those guys touched the ball nearly every offensive play, so I’m inclined to limit this to defensive players.

The first name that jumped into my head immediately was Bob Sanders. DeJean is in that sort of company. Sanders is, and always will be, the most impactful player of the Ferentz era. He’s also spoken of in reverential terms. If you have four pillars holding up this era of Iowa football, three of them are Kirk Ferentz, Chris Doyle as Kirk’s consigliere (please don’t turn the comments into a pissing match on Doyle, please), and Norm/Phil Parker sharing the third spot. The 4th is a player, and it’s Sanders. He’s another one of those “you had to be there to believe him” sort of players. He wasn’t a big dude - also listed at 5-8 - but he used his body as a literal missile and you felt the hits in the stands (his style of play will, unfortunately, keep him out of the Hall of Fame due to lack of games; too many injuries). Iowa had become a soft program at the end of the Fry era - totally understandable given the health issues he had at the end of his tenure - and Sanders changed that the moment he made his first appearance, in the 2000 season opener versus Kansas State. Here are a few of his special teams plays just from the 2000 season. The tackle at 1:45 would probably get him thrown out of a game today simply for hitting someone too hard.

But he also only scored a single touchdown in his career, a fumble recovery on a Matt Roth sack against Illinois in 2003 where the ball bounced directly to Sanders and he walked into the end zone. His impact is the greatest of the Ferentz era, but it was not with the ball in his hands - remember, he was a missile, so he was meant to destroy his target. Sanders impact was, say, the 2003 Minnesota game - a ton of tackles, forcing fumbles at the goalline, bottling up Lawrence Maroney and Marion Barber III. When I think of DeJean I think of the amazing returns - I think my favorite is the interception return against Rutgers in which he catches the ball over his shoulder as if he’s the receiver, weaves through traffic across half of the field (that’s the Tim Dwight gene), and runs through a tackle like a running back.

You know what? Let’s take a quick look at that return again. WHY THE F NOT?

Roth, of course, deserves a mention here. Another transformational player. Not on the Sanders level, but he was a great defensive end in the early 2000s - tough, physical, slightly unhinged. Chad Greenway and Abdul Hodge were excellent in the 2003-2005 range at linebackers. Pat Angerer, Mitch King, Adrian Clayborn - also great players in the All-American category. Josey Jewell destroyed most things in his Iowa career. Tyler Sash was uniquely talented with the ball, but never got to All-American status. Micah Hyde didn’t get the ball nearly enough in his time at Iowa - he’s another guy that should’ve gone both ways in an effort to juice the offense - but has had an excellent pro career. Desmond King was a unanimous All-American in 2015 and should have been in 2016 since no one threw at him, but he was only a second-team All-American in 2016. And that is probably the best comp, at least in the current era. He shut down a whole side of the field for an entire season, much like DeJean did this year, to the point almost no one threw his way and he didn’t get a second unanimous All-American honor because of it. Those guys also did things with the ball in their hands - King’s touchdown return against Maryland, a pick on a bubble screen, was a magnificent play and in the DeJean mold as well - so I think those are the two best defensive players with the ball of this era. DeJean, King, Hyde, and Sash were the best four of the era once they got the ball, and three of them won the defensive back of the year award (Sash didn’t win it because it didn’t exist yet). Sanders is alone at the top overall, now and forever.

Congratulations again to DeJean, who is a wonderful player and in that near-summit level of players to have played at Iowa in the last 25 years. The fact we are comparing him to these players at all speaks to his ability and impact on the program. He will be missed but we’ll be covering him next year in the National Football League.