Baseball Preview: Cooper looks to build on 2010

Part 1: Sidearm Kennedy looks to acnchor pen
Part 2: Kapteyn is a Kaptializer
Part 3: Steady Wright looks for big 2011

Leading up to the 2011 season opener on Friday, Feb. 18 at No. 20 College of Charleston, UKathletics.com is rolling out eight individual player feature stories. Today's feature is on UK sophomore right-handed pitcher Jordan Cooper.

Over the last few years, Kentucky assistant coach and recruiting coordinator Brad Bohannon has made a major splash by dipping into the state of Tennessee for talent.

Bohannon, along with UK head coach Gary Henderson and assistant coach Brian Green have helped UK land some of the best talents in the state of Tennessee, a hot-bed for college baseball talent. Bohannon recruited former UK southpaw Logan Darnell, a native of Nashville and now a member of the Minnesota Twins farm system, former UK All-Southeastern Conference middle infielder Ryan Wilkes and standout catcher Marcus Nidiffer all out of the state.

Add another star to that list, as sophomore right-hander Jordan Cooper may have the most talent of that trio as he enters a draft-eligible season in the UK weekend starting rotation.

A native of Shelbyville, Tenn., Cooper was rated as the No. 1 high school pitching prospect in the state of Tennessee coming out of high school and was considered a potential high-round draft pick as Baseball America ranked him as the 81st-best player in high school baseball.

The 6-foot-3, 215-pounder made his intentions known to professional scouts that he wanted to follow through on his commitment to Kentucky. The Pittsburg Pirates took a flyer on Cooper in the 17th round of the 2009 MLB Draft, but the strong right-hander arrived on campus in 2010.

As a freshman, Cooper's talents stood out on a young pitching staff, as he was used in a variety of roles throughout the season. He appeared in 20 games and made eight starts, emerging late in the year as one of the top pitchers in the nation.

Cooper started the year in the bullpen, making long relief outings through hi first few outings, before a breakout performance at Vanderbilt. Following that outing and a dominating performance at Arkansas in front of 10,000 fans, Cooper was rewarded with a start in a rivalry game against Big East power Louisville.

He responded, going 3.2 shutout innings in a televised game during an electric atmosphere, before Mike Kaczmarek and Nick Kennedy closed out the 5-0 shutout win.

"To me anytime you play against good competition and you have success, what you are hoping for is that that experience will propel you forward," UK head coach Gary Henderson said. "You are more secure in your abilities and what you can do. It gives you the knowledge that you can be successful at this level. And you kind of move past the unknown into the determination, you just get to a spot where you know you can be successful and that allows you to be clear with your thoughts and aggressive with your thoughts. It allows you to attack the game."

It seemed like that game changed Cooper and after a couple of rocky SEC outings against Alabama and Florida, he responded with a winning effort against Florida in the series finale.

With UK's pitching staff decimated by injury to starter Logan Darnell and illness to star right-hander Alex Meyer, Henderson had to throw Cooper out for his first career SEC start at eventual SEC Western Division Champion Auburn. Cooper's performance put UK in position to win at Auburn and just three days later, he came back to throw three shutout innings at Louisville.

Then, in a three-start span, Cooper truly solidified himself as one of the best freshmen hurlers in college baseball. On May 2, he went to Tennessee and pitched five innings, suffering a hard-luck loss in a 2-1 defeat. After that hard-luck outing, Cooper rebounded to toss 6.2 innings of one-run ball against South Carolina, the eventual NCAA Champions, earning SEC Freshman of the Week accolades. Seven days later, Cooper tossed a career-high seven innings against 2009 NCAA Champion LSU in a winning effort.
So in a two-start span, against the defending and eventual national champions, Cooper tossed a combined 13.2 innings, struck out seven and picked up a pair of wins.

"Well, in my mind Jordan went through kind of a very encouraging and a very good freshman year," Henderson said. "But he was one of those guys that got better and better as the year went along and that is how it is supposed to work. That is what you draw up, is you want your kids to get better as time goes along."

After a fall practice where UK's coaching staff lauded the impressive performances and strides Cooper has made going into his sophomore season, the strong-armed right-hander appears to be in position to resume his role as a lockdown SEC starter.

"He took the summer off and got strong," Henderson said. "He came back this fall and pitched extremely well. He is another guy that has gotten stronger. He has changed his body composition. He is in much better shape. He commands his fastball on both sides of the plate at a much higher percentage than he did at any point in time last year. His changeup has improved. He still has a very competitive slider and we look for him to be one of the mainstays on the weekend for us this spring."