TAMPA — Ron Cooper didn't even need to buy a house this winter for his new coaching job across town, but he already feels much more at home.
USF's first-year defensive backs coach spent the 2012 season in the same role on Greg Schiano's staff with the Bucs, but a return to college football has reminded the 51-year-old what he likes most about coaching.
"It didn't take probably 45 days after being there that I realized it was a little different," Cooper said of his time with the Bucs. "I'd been a college coach for 28 seasons. My plus has always been developing young men, 18 to 22 years old. … (In the NFL) you've got guys that come from all different backgrounds. They've been coached, and they're getting paid pretty good. My style is more dealing with an 18-, 19-, 20-year-old."
Cooper has been at the highest level of college, coaching LSU's defensive backs in the 2011 national title game loss to Alabama. His players included two Thorpe Award winners and high first-round picks in Morris Claiborne and Patrick Peterson, as well as Tyrann "Honey Badger" Mathieu.
Working closely with such high-profile cornerbacks has already helped him in recruiting and in earning respect.
"For me to get someone with that experience, not only as a great DB coach, but he's been a head coach before, it was important to me to get a mixture of older and younger guys on our staff," said USF coach Willie Taggart, himself just 36. "He's a guy who's coached at the highest level, at one of the biggest games that we all try to get to. That's going to pay off for our guys in realizing he does know what he's talking about."
Cooper was familiar with Taggart, whose playing career at Western Kentucky overlapped with Cooper's tenure as head coach at Louisville from 1995-97. In Cooper's last year, Taggart's WKU team gave LSU a scare, trailing 14-7 in the third quarter before losing 42-9.
"As we get older as coaches, you feel yourself seeing young star coaches coming up," Cooper said. "To attach yourself to that is real good. I don't consider myself being old at all, but in the coaching profession now, it's just one of those things. … I think something real special's about to happen here."
Cooper's year with the Bucs was difficult. He started the season with Pro Bowl-caliber players such as Aqib Talib and Eric Wright, but saw Talib suspended, then traded to the Patriots, and Wright missed time with injuries and a suspension. Shorthanded and inexperienced, the Bucs came within 38 of allowing the most passing yards in NFL history.
Midway through spring drills, Cooper likes his USF athletes. As they learn a new defense, he's as concerned about their ability to read offenses and recognize formations and tendencies. He said a defensive back must make plays with his head as well as his feet.
"We want to have guys that are smart enough to make adjustments. Offenses aren't going to come out in one or two formations," Cooper said. "They're going to come out all over the place."
USF's defensive secondary was a problem last year — the Bulls had just two interceptions all season, both in the same quarter of a win against Connecticut. It was the lowest mark in the nation, and five fewer than any Big East team in the past five years.
Cooper will have new starting cornerbacks along with senior safeties Mark Joyce and JaQuez Jenkins, and he's confident the Bulls will have a different set of memories for 2013.
"When I heard about two interceptions for the year, I don't know if I've ever heard of that," Cooper said. "I definitely see enough talent to where we're not going to be sitting here next year talking about two interceptions."