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Arizona Cardinals

Updated Sep 3, 2014 - 5:06 pm

Arizona Cardinals' Jonathan Cooper understanding, but not settling for backup role

TEMPE, Ariz. -- When the Arizona Cardinals take the field against the San Diego Chargers on Monday Night Football, Jonathan Cooper will be healthy enough to play.

Yet, if all goes according to plan, he won't see a snap.

Not long ago, that wasn't the plan at all.

Cooper's travails have been well documented, as he's worked to return to form after missing all last season due to a broken leg and then had his progress stunted by a turf toe injury suffered in the preseason opener. Cooper missed a significant amount of practice, and in the process lost his grasp on the left guard job.

Though he may still be the future at the position, at this point he is not the present. Right now, the job belongs to veteran Ted Larsen.

"He's had his opportunity," Cardinals coach Bruce Arians said of Cooper having a chance to earn a starting job. "You can't get there in a day of practice, not after a month. Like I've said before, I don't care about draft status: I want to see results on the field, and Ted Larsen's way outplayed him."

There's little arguing that Larsen, entering his fifth NFL season after being selected in the sixth round of the 2010 NFL Draft by the New England Patriots, had a better training camp than Cooper, the seventh overall selection in 2013.

Arians said the issue for Cooper earning the spot now is that practice time in pads is limited during the season, so it's going to be tough to overtake Larsen. In fact, the coach said an injury to a teammate may be Cooper's best bet to see the field.

"I felt like last year I was on the verge of being a pretty good player..." - Jonathan Cooper

"That's alright," Cooper said. "That's not really up to me. My thing is just to be ready when it is my time."

Cooper, while wanting to be the starter, understands why he is currently second string and is not necessarily viewing this as some kind of test.

"I honestly don't feel like, for my performance with injuries and the time I've had out there, I have not earned that spot," he said. "I don't know if it's a test; I understand what they're doing. So it's perfectly fine, but I'm still hungry to get better, improve as a player and be ready when it is my shot."

To say Cooper's road has been bumpy to this point would be an incredible understatement. A little more than one year ago he seemed destined to start as a rookie and, hopefully, solidify his role as the team's starting left guard for years to come.

Instead he's had the last year.

"It was, don't get me wrong, it was, because it's been very difficult," he said when asked if his confidence was shaken at all. "But I feel like I'm at a good place now. I understand what I have to do; now it's just a matter of doing it."

At the very least, the 24-year-old has managed to keep a positive perspective throughout it all.

"It's difficult, but honestly faith in God and just talking to people," he said of how he does it. "I talked to Anthony (Edwards), our chaplain, just yesterday, (and) Sam Acho -- you know, we had the same injury but he's doing a little bit better than me now -- but definitely it helps to talk to him, my parents. Just keep talking to people with a positive attitude who continue to encourage me. Stay away from social media, where people can kind of get at you a little bit, but really that's my thing, just making sure that I maintain a positive attitude so I can keep working and improve."

The hope is Cooper will emerge from all of this a better player, and he himself said it's helping to build character. And even with his struggles, Cardinals GM Steve Keim expressed confidence that Cooper will eventually round into form, while Arians, who has said before this will help Cooper understand how much pain he is able to play through, said the North Carolina product will be a "heck of a player."

"It's just a matter of time and taking the right approach with him, letting him get healthy," the coach added.

That takes time, but Cooper, who said he has an even greater appreciation for the game after going down this "difficult road," said comments like that from his coach don't hurt.

"It definitely motivates me," Cooper said. "When you hear something positive -- I mean, I'm not starting and we all understand what's going on there. But to hear something positive and understanding that with a little bit of time and a little bit of work that I can still be a good player, that's definitely a motivator."

Maybe Cooper needs time, or perhaps just a little bit of luck. Either way, while he doesn't fit into the team's plans at the beginning of the season, there's a pretty good chance he will by the end of it. It's all about where he goes from here.

"They want to see me continue to work hard and just continue to improve all the way around," Cooper said of his coaches. "Not one specific thing but just continue to improve and be the player they drafted. I felt like last year I was on the verge of being a pretty good player, so kind of get back on that track and really just work to be a great NFL player."

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