IOWA CITY -- The first Darian Cooper sighting was rather impressive.
It was last August. The 6-2, 280-pounder reported to camp a few days later than everyone, so he was limited to helmet, shoulder pads and shorts for Iowa's open scrimmage. Still, he didn't look bad. He played low and showed a powerful punch for a true freshman.
"Set Iowa history that day, the coaches told me," Cooper said. "The first guy to do the Iowa scrimmage in shorts."
Cooper's "oh crap, I'm in college football" moment would come later. Actually, let's use Cooper's term for when it flashed into his head that he's not in high school anymore.
He called it a "realization moment."
"Riley Reiff!" Cooper said with a laugh.
Reiff was king of Iowa's pit last season. He was a returning all-Big Ten offensive tackle. At the end of 2011, he passed up his final year of eligibility and was drafted in the first round by the Detroit Lions. Reiff will make millions because he's big, strong and nasty.
Back to the "realization moment."
Cooper was coming off his time as the "king of the pit" at DeMatha High School in Maryland. As a senior, he set the school record with five sacks in a game. He had 10 sacks, four forced fumbles and three pass break-ups as a senior. He had 30 career sacks and helped DeMatha to a 20-4 record in his final two seasons.
"When I first got here, I was so used to playing in high school and running, maybe giving a guy the shoulder, maybe him falling back or stumbling but definitely moving," Cooper said. "So, I'm running at Riley Reiff. I turn and -- BOOM! -- I hit him.
"I'm like what is this? I hit him and my legs stopped. Then, I feel two tree-trunk arms hit me."
This is what it's really like in the pit, people. The "BOOM!" was all Cooper's, and so is the . . .
"BOOF!" he added. "I'm kind of like dazed, like wow!
"And I'm still kind of captivated by the fact that he [Reiff] stopped, hits me two tree trunk arms, gives me a little rise, tosses me and then runs to finish me off."
No one can hear you scream in the pit. No one is going to stop a play, even in practice, if it looks as though you might be steamrolled. All man for themselves. Realization moment.
"I roll out of the way and try to get up," Cooper said. "I'm sitting there, like, wow, like this is a grown man. This is not high school anymore. That was my realization moment."
BOOM, BOOF, realization moment.
You can't sum up what Cooper and his mates on the defensive line face this season any more accurately.
This is an inexperienced group, with 14 career starts split between senior end/tackle Steve Bigach and junior end Dominic Alvis. This is a young group. The current depth chart includes seven redshirt freshmen and sophomores. True freshmen tackles Jaleel Johnson and Faith Ekakitie could push for playing time. This is the question mark group.
"Right now, not a lot of people are giving us credit, but we need to go out and earn it, to be honest," senior defensive end Joe Gaglione said. "We're motivated. We want to go out and prove everyone wrong."
Each player in the depth chart has had their realization moments.
Left end -- Bigach and Gaglione have been journeymen up to this point in their time at Iowa. Gaglione lost 2009 and most of '10 after a shoulder surgery. Bigach, who'll take the Medical College Admission Test, is an integrative physiology major.
Right end -- Alvis is still fighting back from a torn ACL he suffered last November.
Left tackle -- Cooper and Carl Davis are listed as the co-starters there. Cooper is a redshirt freshman who's having a lot thrown at him. Davis, a sophomore, has changed his body in his three years at Iowa, slimming from 340 to 310, but he's also coming off knee surgery in January.
Right tackle -- Louis Trinca-Pasat has gone from nearly quitting last December, according to head coach Kirk Ferentz, to starter. When he arrived at Iowa, he weighed 240 pounds and is now a 283-pound third-year sophomore.
It's not the "Island of Misfit Toys," but the paths have been broken and/or unpaved, which is more or less the Iowa way on the D-line. Conventional D-linemen are born and not made. Iowa makes them, see Mitch King and Matt Kroul (the tackle tandem that set the tone for the '08 squad). This takes time and, the season, it meshes a lot of players at different stages of development.
For unconventional, look no farther than D-line coach Reese Morgan. He coached Iowa's offensive line from 2003 to 2011. Last February, Ferentz asked him to move over to defensive line before he hired son, Brian, as O-line coach.
"We have to rise to the occasion," Morgan said. "We're looking for certain things and we're going to play the best players, regardless of where they're at in the program."
Morgan considers Cooper ready to play. As good as Cooper looked in shorts last August, he points to the year he spent as a redshirt and considers it a smart move. With former Iowa tackle Mike Daniels, who was drafted by the Packers in the fourth round of the NFL draft, as a teacher, Cooper said he learned a lot.
"Mike Daniels is definitely someone worth modeling yourself after," Cooper said. "You want to get to that level and then further yourself. I'm not trying to be Mike Daniels, but that's definitely not a bad place to start."
Cooper learned last season this isn't high school anymore. He learned BOOM and BOOF. Now, it's his turn in the pit.
Defensive ends: No. 1s -- Steve Bigach, sr., 6-3, 282 OR Joe Gaglione, sr., 6-4, 264; AND Dominic Alvis, jr., 6-4, 265; Nos. 2 -- Riley McMinn, #fr., 6-7, 245; Melvin Spears, #fr., 6-2, 255. Defensive tackles: No. 1 -- Carl Davis, so., 6-5, 310 OR Darian Cooper, #fr., 6-2, 280; AND Louis Trinca-Pasat, so., 6-3, 280; Nos. 2 -- Mike Hardy, so., 6-5, 270; Dean Tsopanides, #fr., 6-2, 240; Casey McMillan, sr., 6-4, 305; Faith Ekakitie, fr., 6-3, 275; Jaleel Johnson, fr., 6-4, 320. #= redshirt freshman
The rotation seems to be focusing on six players -- ends Steve Bigach, Joe Gaglione and Dominic Alvis and tackles Carl Davis, Darian Cooper and Louis Trinca-Pasat. Out of this group, only Alvis has ever settled in as a starter and that was before an ACL sidelined him against Michigan last November. Bigach started six games, but was shifted into tackle and out to end. During Iowa's first scrimmage, there was some decent give and take against Iowa's O-line, a talented and veteran group. The young D-line won a few battles and caught some attention. "We don't have a lot of open practices, so people have been asking me how you guys are going to have a defense without a defensive line," linebacker James Morris said. "I wish you could come to our practices and see, because I know what you don't know."
Ends -- Either Bigach or Gaglione probably serves as the No. 3 end. Gaglione might have a slight edge there, but both will be given a shot to win the job early in the season. From there, Riley McMinn has been banged up, but his body (he was a lanky 219 when he signed with Iowa) is starting to fill out. Melvin Spears is a powerful player with a good burst off the edge. He could work into a pass-rushing role. Tackles -- Again, the Davis-Cooper battle will yield a No. 3. After that, Mike Hardy could step in. He's a third-year, so you know he knows it's time. From there, does Iowa dip into true freshmen?Physically, Jaleel Johnson and Faith Ekakitie probably are ready to play. Johnson weighed in at 323 during his recruiting visit. Ekakitie is listed at 278. They are probably the tackle tandem of the future. "There are some kids these days who come in from high school programs where they have lifted weights," Iowa strength and conditioning coach Chris Doyle said. "The biggest challenge is mental. . . . The mental grind is tougher than the physical." It's probably 60-40 redshirt right now. A year concentrating on technique wouldn't hurt. The plan for ends Drew Ott and Daumantas Venckus-Cucchiara is redshirt. In open scrimmages, Ott has shown solid technique and a great motor.