Q&A: How Cooper Lovelace went from a Kansas junior college to becoming USC’s only new lineman

In an already unique incoming class, Cooper Lovelace is an especially rare breed.

He didn’t play football until his final year of high school. He spent the last three years at a Kansas junior college — a distant outpost by USC’s recruiting standards — and estimates he has played only 20 football games in his life. And now, he’s suddenly the only offensive lineman in Lincoln Riley’s first recruiting class at USC.

He also happens to be an excellent storyteller. The Times caught up with Lovelace last week to ask about his journey to Los Angeles, just as he was settling into his new life.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Los Angeles Times: What are your thoughts on L.A. so far?

Cooper Lovelace: I love every bit of it. I’m more of a city guy anyway. Being from Kansas City, there’s two million people there. But living in a small world — BFE as they call it — in El Dorado, Kansas, it’s awesome out here. I can’t even explain. I was looking at the weather the other day, here it’s 72 and sunny, back in El Dorado, it’s like 92 with a wind advisory of 25+. That’s the norm. That’s not enjoyable. Then, the next day it’ll probably snow. That’s how Kansas rolls. Here, it’s just the same every day. I just came to the realization that I live where people vacation.

New USC offensive lineman Cooper Lovelace

(Ed Bailey / Butler Athletics)

LAT: Have you gotten a feel yet for the culture under Coach Riley?

CL: I’ve talked to some guys, even on my recruiting trip, about how the transformation happened. When Coach Riley came in, they said it was almost overnight, the changes he made in the program. Some people either bought in or didn’t. Everyone in the whole building seems to be on the same page.

Sometimes when transfers come in, there can be a sour tongue if you know what I mean, and so far there’s been none of that with anyone. So many other new transfers, we came in together and we have class together, and we were talking the other day about how there’s been no problem. It seems like we’ve been here forever, except I just learned everyone’s name.

LAT: There are so many transfers, it’s like a third of the roster …

CL: Exactly. Everyone wants to win so bad, there’s no egos in here. There’s a bunch of redshirt seniors and older guys in the linemen room specifically. And man, the number of them that have told me, ‘Hey, if you want to get together and watch film, or work on installing stuff together, just hit me up.’ That normally doesn’t happen.

LAT: So you only played one year of high school football?

CL: Yeah, I played my senior year of high school football.

LAT: What led you to decide you wanted to play football?

CL: So, I wrestled before that. I loved wrestling growing up. Being in the Midwest, all the wrestling national championships are in, like, Oklahoma City, Iowa City, or St. Louis. My dad is an Oklahoma State alum. Just always went to those, was always so into it. I liked football, but I don’t know, I played when I was a kid. Like fourth grade, fifth grade. But that doesn’t count. You’re just kids running around. But we got a new coach going into my senior year. I wanted to play football, and this new coach was a breath of fresh air. It was like, ‘You know what, let’s do it.’

Then, come December — well, if you start trying to get recruited in December of your senior year, man, it’s just not gonna happen. December of your senior year to start? That was the first year they had early enrollees, and you could get there in January. So rosters were way more set than usual. Options were super low. I could’ve walked on at some places, but I’m not going to drop $50,000 per year to go. Financially, it’s dumb. Some programs sell that you can earn a scholarship here in six months. That doesn’t happen. That happens in Year 3, Year 4, Year 5.

LAT: After you’ve spent $100k …

CL: After you’ve spent $100k! Like, come on. Not doing that. So I just knew where I was going, and Butler, my offensive line coach, he sent out like 24 Division 1 offensive linemen the last four years. He churns us out. So I knew the development was there. That was a perfect place to go. I loved every bit of it.

LAT: How long were you at Butler?

CL: I was there for three years. The fall of ‘19, I came in and redshirted. Because I’d only played one year of high school football. I just immediately thought, I’d rather burn my redshirt here. You don’t normally bring in junior college guys to sit, right? It’s normally like, ‘We need to fill a safety. We need to fill an outside receiver.’ You’re here to play right now. I was like, ‘I’d rather play three years D-1 then three years at a junior college.’ Redshirted that fall, then the spring of ‘20 happens, COVID happens. And they canceled the season in the fall of ‘20. That was a year of development which was absolutely cash money.

The fall of ‘21 was the first season I actually hit my clock. It was really nice — you’re in an O-line room for three years, learning the game of football. Like I said, my O-line coach has churned out 24 D-1 guys, so he does know what he’s talking about. I’m able to walk in my recruiting visits and I’m able to handle conversations and I don’t need to learn what football is. So that’s been all good.

“It was like, come on dude, this is Lincoln Riley talking to me. Come on.”

— Cooper Lovelace on being recruited by USC

LAT: So 2021, that’s the second season of football you’d ever played?

CL: Yeaaaaaah. All-time, I’ve only played in — I don’t know, but I’m thinking it’s right around 20 [games]. In high school, we played like 12. Then we had eight this past year. So that’s ridiculous. Isn’t that ridiculous? That’s ridiculous.

LAT: When that ‘21 season starts, what sort of expectations do you have about potentially moving to the next step? Is USC even in the realm of possibility at that point?

CL: There are some programs that just don’t even touch junior college players. With 70 junior colleges in the state of California, those teams don’t traditionally come out to Kansas for junior college players. They just don’t. Notre Dame, Wisconsin, USC, they’re teams you never include because they aren’t schools who go to find guys where I’m at. Sure, Clemson and Alabama will. But sometimes you’re just going as a depth piece, which you never want to do. But when there are coaching changes like here, USC was never on my radar at any moment in time. Every once in a while they’ll grab a Cali JUCO guy who’s just down the road. But come all the way to El Dorado, Kansas to grab some kid? That just doesn’t happen, you know what I mean?

LAT: When did you first have any inkling USC was interested?

CL: Here’s a nice little timeline for you. My initial contact with them was April 29. They offered on the 30th. I posted it on the 1st. Yeaaaah — talk about fast. At that point, I had a good handful of some offers and some really respectable teams, so it’s not like they came completely out of nowhere.

LAT: What kind of film did USC watch of you before they offered?

CL: I sent my workout videos that I did for Auburn and Florida. And then 20 or so, 30 or so clips from the spring. One of the coaches on staff actually played in college with my head coach at Kansas. So that’s what kind of expedited the process. They could do the quality control by just talking to him.

LAT: Which coach?

CL: [Zach] Hanson, the tight ends coach.

So, on the 29th, that evening, Coach [Josh] Henson, the O-line coach, hit me up on Twitter and asked me if I have a minute to talk, and I said, ‘Duh, obviously.’ So we talked for like 15-20 minutes, he was hopping on a flight in Miami to go back to L.A. and we were talking football. I sent him that workout video, the technique videos, kind of just the whole package. He said he’d call me the next day. Saturday rolls around, and he calls me, and we talk for, I’d say, over an hour. Talking about what he’s looking for, what I’m looking for. It’s like a [different] relationship with transfers. Now, they don’t have to sell me on a dream. They want something out of me. They want me to help the team. But also, I get something out of it. I get developed as a player. I get better connections, I get trained better.

We talked about what I’m looking for, what he could develop. He said he’d go to Coach Riley’s house and eat a steak later that night. He’d call me back to see where I’m at with them, and they called me back. It was Coach Riley at his house, classic sunset in the background, classic recruiting pitch, absolutely stunning.

He offers me 90 seconds into the call, and we talked for 20 more minutes. I can’t tell you a single word that came out of his mouth after that. I really can’t. It was like, come on dude, this is Lincoln Riley talking to me. Come on. That was just one of those great moments you work years in the shadows behind everyone to become an overnight success. That was a surreal football moment for me. That whole 48- to 72-hour window was absolutely ridiculous.

Cooper Lovelace spent the past three years at Butler Community College in El Dorado, Kansas.

Cooper Lovelace spent the past three years at Butler Community College in El Dorado, Kansas.

(Ed Bailey / Butler Athletics)

Then, we hopped up there for a visit the next weekend. You only get so many hours on a visit to actually be with coaches. So we’re doing O-line work in the lobby at brunch and on top of the Coliseum. I did a couple, three, four hours worth of film in their office, going over that kind of stuff. I didn’t want to do all the “La La” stuff. I’m not playing football to be in a better city. You don’t need to sell me on having things to do in L.A. I know there are things to do out here! But I gotta know the football. That’s why I’m coming!

I’m giving you the CliffsNotes version obviously, but we’re going for a good while, and we ended up having dinner that Saturday night at Coach Riley’s house. We were the first recruiting trip to go there because he finally got all moved in and all that. Incredible view. Food was great. The one thing I noticed from all of my other visits, every team preaches family and unity together. At his house, all the coaches are there, all the coaches’ wives are there, all the coaches’ kids are there playing in the yard together.

All you do in the morning on Sunday is have breakfast. That was Mother’s Day. I had one more sit-down with Coach Riley, trying to cover any questions or anything about how I’m feeling. You know, I pretty much knew when I was there sitting at his house. I’d covered everything I needed to. I knew I was going there at that point. But I had to be sure. I told Coach Riley when I was in his office, I was like, ‘You know, you never make a decision when you’re in La La Land. So I’m gonna take Dorothy and hop on a plane back to Kansas and sleep on it.’ I think he thought that was funny. I thought it was funny. I hopped on the plane and right as it took off, I was like, ‘Yeah, I’m going here.’

They called me Tuesday night and were like, ‘Congratulations, you just got accepted into USC, and I was like, ‘Congratulations, you guys just got yourselves another Trojan.’

Now the process began of me trying to tell everyone what my decision was. Some teams took it great. Some teams didn’t. That’s the best way to say it.

LAT: There’s a perception that offensive linemen don’t really get developed in the West. Did that ever come up with these other schools recruiting you?

CL: That’s even the notion that I had — that SEC O-lines and Big Ten O-lines, those are the conferences for O-line, D-line, that’s it. There’s a little bit of truth to that. At the same time, the NFL will draft guys from D-III that will go in and start. I was messaging [former USC lineman] Alijah Vera-Tucker on Instagram about his USC experience, and he told me, ‘Man, at the end of the day, if you’re a dog, you’re a dog.’ And I was like, ‘Maaaan, you’re right. It doesn’t matter where I go.’

LAT: That was before you committed?

CL: Yep, it was in the car ride on the way to Coach Riley’s house, after we’d left the beach.

LAT: What is it about Josh Henson that really stood out to you?

CL: He has a proven track record of developing players. He’s one of those guys you just know playing O-line. You just know him. He’s one of those guys. When he hit me up, I didn’t have to question who it was. I know all of the guys he developed at Missouri, Oklahoma State, A&M. I didn’t have to quality control him as a coach. I know they’re getting coached well.

In a couple of months, they’re losing so many guys, too. That’s the other thing. If I take the starting job, I take the starting job, right? If I don’t, like I said, I have to adjust to this level of college football, if it takes me a semester to adjust, it does. Normally they bring in junior college guys to play right now. That’s not the need right now. In six months, it will be.

For me, my goal is to earn a starting role. But if it doesn’t happen, it’s not the end of the world. That’s normally not the case, but that’s part of this decision. There’s no baptism by fire. I can truly get a fair shot and develop.

LAT: You’re pretty used to waiting for your shot already, seems like.

CL: Yeah, oh my god, yeah. It’s just crazy. I guess it’s a good thing, I don’t have much wear and tear on my body if you think about it. I’ve had years of practice, but the actual game wear, it’s very low. That’s a positive. Being hyper-mobile — I know you saw my video.

LAT: I was going to ask you about that video, actually.

CL: I did gymnastics when I was a kid. When you do gymnastics when you’re that young, starting anywhere between 2 and 5, your hips and pelvis and everything are so malleable. You never lose it. I didn’t stretch or warm up before I took that video. I could do it right now. That’s what people don’t realize. I don’t have to build into that. I could do that whole routine right now, and I just finished eating lunch. That’s the part that people really don’t understand.

Your body prevents injuries really really well when you’re mobile like that. So, I feel like I’m in a good spot no matter what happens.

LAT: Did USC sell you specifically on the potential opportunities available next year, even if you don’t become a starter this season?

CL: Before we even got on the plane, they told me they’ve got a bunch of great returning starters and they have the transfer from UVA, [Bobby] Haskins — he’s a really great guy. With these guys, he told me, ‘If you beat someone out and take their job, it’s my job to tell them you took the role. If you don’t, there’s no worry. Now you’re just going to be learning behind really smart, really good football players.

I’ll be 22 in December. So it’s like well, I’ll have two more years to play, two more springs, two more falls. That opportunity is just great. Obviously I’m going to camp trying to take a starting role. That’s obviously the goal. But I have that little failsafe in the back end.

LAT: Are you planning to start out on the interior?

CL: It hasn’t really been decided on. We were talking tackle and guard when we were looking at film and installing and stuff. I feel the most natural at tackle. I like space. Some guys don’t. I have that freedom of travel for them to decide. So we’ll see toward the middle or end of camp, I imagine, is when I’ll find out. We’ll cross that bridge when we get there. I’m trying to learn both right now. I do better trying to learn the whole playbook instead of just positions.

LAT: So when USC first reaches out and you send them clips, what’s in those clips? How much film did they actually see of you beforehand?

CL: I’ve talked to a couple of guys here. They obviously watched my film from last fall. However many clips are on there. Then from the spring, I’d say it’s like 20-25 clips of like pass rush against speed rush, jump sets, gallops, wide-zone sets, set-to-jumps, all forms of techniques that I use. I would say some other programs needed more film, but that kind of goes back to the fact that there’s a reason Coach Henson is Coach Henson. It doesn’t take him long. He said he watched my film three or four times to make sure his eyes weren’t wrong.

It’s such a fast movement with transfers nowadays. It takes a year for guys to offer a high school kid, but it’s like 48 hours, if that. I had a good feeling about what they were looking for and what I had and it paired almost hand-in-hand. They could’ve gotten a bunch of one-year guys. There weren’t too many two-year guys that they liked. The ones they did ended up going to other places. So I’m the only offensive line recruit this year. Which is very funny. Coach Riley was even laughing at it in one of the meetings I had with him. He was like, ‘One? That’s never happened. I’ve never had one. I’ve never had probably less than four.’

Taking that all in has been … wow — I would need two more hours to fill you in on everything.

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