‘Nothing that he can’t do’: Cooper DeJean proving to be versatile weapon for Iowa football

Through the first seven games of the season, the sophomore from Odebolt, Iowa, has played multiple positions for the Hawkeye defense.


Ayrton Breckenridge

Iowa defensive back Cooper DeJean celebrates after Iowa linebacker Jack Campbell got a safety during a football game between Iowa and South Dakota State at Kinnick Stadium on Saturday, Sept. 3, 2022. The Hawkeyes defeated the Jackrabbits, 7-3.

Cooper DeJean did not cover kickoffs during his last few years at Odebolt-Arthur-Battle Creek-Ida Grove High School.

In close games, the high school’s assistant football coach Travis Chizek said those were typically the only plays when the Falcons’ star was not on the field. 

DeJean — now a sophomore defensive back at the University of Iowa — played quarterback in his last two seasons of high school football, and moved through a variety of positions when the Falcons were on defense.

DeJean thought he improved his team’s odds of winning when he was on the field for as many snaps as possible, Chizek said.

DeJean was an all-state wide receiver as a high school sophomore, breaking school records for receptions in a game, catches and receiving yards in a season, career touchdown grabs, and total yards in a year.

When he moved to quarterback, DeJean set records for completions in a season, passing yards in a season, career passing yards, and career passing touchdowns.

OABCIG went 25-0 during DeJean’s junior and senior seasons, claiming back-to-back 2A state titles.

Now, he’s getting the chance to show what he can do in college football.

‘The gap between him and everybody else was just so evident’

DeJean was dominant on more than just the football field in his high school career. He was a three-year letterwinner on the Falcons’ baseball, basketball, and track teams. 

DeJean won state championships in the long jump and 100-meter dash as a senior. That same season, he was part of the Falcons’ state championship-winning 400-meter relay team. He finished second in the 200-meter dash. 

“On the track, there was just kind of a buzz whenever he was up, whenever he was competing,” said Chizek, who is also the Falcons’ head track coach. “At the smaller local meets, it was just always just a great atmosphere because people wanted to witness something … You just never knew how good it could be because he was capable of such amazing things.”

From a young age, DeJean proved to be powerful on the basketball court. Every year, Chizek said, the OABCIG school district hosts a basketball tournament with players of all ages. High schoolers serve as captains and select players of all ages for their teams. Ultimately, the squads would compete against each other to determine which captain picked the best team.

When DeJean was in fifth grade, high schoolers wanted him on their teams.

“You’d hear these kids talking about, ‘Oh, I’m going to win because I have Cooper on my team,’” Chizek said. “ … You know, it’s one thing to be, you know, so much better at a young age, but then he put in the work to continue to be elite all the way through.”

Chizek and Iowa defensive coordinator Phil Parker both commended DeJean for his work ethic on the field and watching scouting tape. 

“Hard worker,” Parker said of DeJean. “Always in the film room or always working. I used to see him in the summertime all the time just going out there to the indoor [practice facility] trying to work on his footwork and stuff like that.”

Iowa defensive back Cooper DeJean hits Nevada quarterback Nate Cox during a football game between Iowa and Nevada at Kinnick Stadium in Iowa City on Saturday, Sept. 17, 2022. The Hawkeyes defeated the Wolf Pack, 20-7. (Jerod Ringwald)

“Basketball, I know he was super fun to watch, and he loved it,” Chizek said “But I just think football kind of became his thing because the gap between him and everybody else was just so, so evident.”

An explosive athlete

From the moment DeJean stepped foot into OABCIG high school, his athleticism set him apart from the Falcons’ other athletes.

DeJean was faster, stronger, and more well-rounded than most of his teammates. Chizek said DeJean used to “go up and catch about anything you threw near him” when he was playing wideout.

“Any time the ball was snapped, he could score,” OABCIG head coach Larry Allen said. “I mean, you just held your breath because, you know, it could happen at any time.”

DeJean scored 137 times in three full seasons on varsity.

He recorded 12 touchdowns as a receiver his sophomore year. He added 42 touchdowns through the air and 24 on the ground as a junior. As a senior, he racked 35 passing TDs and 24 rushing scores. 

The IHSAA does not factor special teams or defensive scores into its records for total touchdowns by a single player. So, DeJean’s totals in the state record books are all on offense.

DeJean didn’t set any state records on the hardwood. Allen, who also serves as OABCIG’s athletic director, said DeJean’s impact on the court was more qualitative than quantitative.

“He was a very good shooter but also played above the rim,” Allen said. “He might only be 6-foot-2, but he can dunk over just about anybody.”

DeJean doesn’t play multiple sports anymore. He’s not a three-way football player either. Still, he hasn’t lost a step athletically.

“He has great ball skills,” Parker said at an Oct. 12 press conference. “Some catches that he makes during practice are what I call freakish. You know what I mean? One-handers behind and all this stuff.”

DeJean’s impressive interceptions, however, are not limited to the practice field. 

DeJean recorded his second interception of this season against Nevada in the third game of the year. He showed off his roots as a wide receiver on the play, dragging his toes near the boundary to ensure his interception wouldn’t be dubbed an incomplete pass by the officiating crew.


At a Sept. 27 press conference, Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz said DeJean “could probably play offense pretty well … but we’ve got to use him on defense right now.”

Fantastic feel for the game

Along with his super-athletic talent, Chizek, Allen, and multiple Hawkeye coaches and players said DeJean has an impressive feel and understanding of football. Some added that DeJean has excellent anticipation between the sidelines.

“His understanding and knowledge of the game, his vision was just, you know, that itself was a cheat code,” Chizek said. Then he put him in a 6-foot-2, 205-pound body that can run like he can, it was just, it was just incredible.”

Chizek and Allen both recounted memories of DeJean calling audibles in all three phases of the game during his high school career.

On one play — a punt return during his junior year — DeJean and OABCIG’s other returner kept a secret from the coaches and teammates. The pair planned and successfully executed a cross-field lateral that DeJean threw almost immediately after he fielded the punt.

Allen said that play gained roughly eight more yards than it would have had DeJean just decided to run the ball back as he normally would.

The other off-kilter decision DeJean made had a greater payoff than the punt return.

In OABCIG’s 2020 state semifinal game, DeJean changed a route at the line of scrimmage. With a simple hand signal, he told receiver Easton Harms to change a simple out route to a double move where the receiver went out and then turned and ran up the field. 

DeJean hit the receiver for a 92-yard touchdown pass. 

“We were asked after the game, ‘You guys really wanted, you know, to send a message, end the game at that point,’” Chizek said. “And we’re like, ‘Well, that wasn’t a play that was called, Cooper changed that at the line of scrimmage.’

“And this guy from the media was shocked,” Chizek continued. “He’s like, ‘You give him that freedom?’ and we’re like well, ‘It’s worked out for us. Now for the last, you know, 23 games — however many games it had been at that time of him playing quarterback.’”

Both coaches said they gave DeJean the freedom to audible at the line because of his instincts and the amount of work he did watching film. 

“He had the freedom to work with his receivers that, you know, we’d call the play and then he would adjust to what he thought they could do,” Allen said. “And there were times when they would ask me, ‘What’s the play?’ So I’d tell them the play. Then, they’d tell me, ‘Well, that’s not what they ran.’ I said, ‘Well, Cooper must have changed it. And I had full confidence in the fact that he knew what we needed to do out there — more so than maybe I did, at times.”

Allen added DeJean has told him playing quarterback was the best thing for him as a defensive back because he “understood what the offense was trying to do and that allowed him to play so freely back there and anticipate so well.”

DeJean’s understanding of opposing offenses was on full display when the Hawkeye sophomore collected his third interception against Rutgers on Sept. 24.

With just over 5:30 left in the first quarter, DeJean picked off an Evan Simon pass via an over-the-shoulder-grab. He proceeded to return the ball 45 yards for a touchdown.

On the return, DeJean crossed the field from left to right, dodging tacklers and setting up multiple blockers along the way.


After joking that his block was the reason for DeJean’s TD, Hawkeye defensive back Kaevon Merriweather said DeJean’s versatility was evident on that play. 

“You can see he played offense in high school,” Merriweather said. “Just the way he got in and out of his cuts and everything like that.” 

DeJean said his instincts kicked in as soon as he caught the ball. 

“I caught the ball on one hash, so I knew everybody would come to that side, O-lineman, those big boys,” DeJean said. “So, I just cut back to the other side of the field and saw there was a lot of grass over there.”

A humble guy

Allen, Chizek, and Ferentz each used the word “humble” to describe DeJean. 

Chizek was the main contact at OABCIG for multiple colleges during DeJean’s recruitment.

“There was a coach that came in and talked to him for just a few minutes and then he wanted to talk to me about him,” Chizek said. “One of the things he talked about was how well and soft-spoken [DeJean] was. He goes, ‘A lot of times, we go into these smaller high schools and the Division I guys are a little bit louder, more arrogant, very ‘Look at me.’ And he’s like, ‘He doesn’t have any of that.’

According to DeJean’s 247Sports profile, Iowa was the only Power Five school to offer him a scholarship. The four-star recruit also received offers from Illinois State, South Dakota State, and North Dakota State.

Allen said DeJean’s work ethic and humble nature stemmed from an underlying ambition to excel. 

“He had a burning desire to be successful, to be the best at whatever he was doing,” Allen said. “He worked extra hard to be prepared.”

Iowa defensive back Cooper DeJean runs the ball back for a pick-six during a football game between Iowa and Rutgers at SHI Stadium in Piscataway, N.J. on Saturday, Sept. 24, 2022. The Hawkeyes defeated the Scarlet Knights 27-10. DeJean’s pick-six was Iowa’s first touchdown of the game. (Ayrton Breckenridge)

Allen said DeJean kept an even-keel disposition while competing that also contributed to his success. On the basketball court, Allen added DeJean would ‘dunk over everybody’ and then just go play defense without showboating or trash-talking.

Away from sports, DeJean didn’t carry himself like a normal state championship-winning, three-sport athlete either. 

“He had all these accolades but you would never know that by his actions,” Allen said. “He is very content to sit in the background. You know, he’s not going to tell you how good he is or speak about his skills or anything like that. He’s just going to let his actions speak for him.”

DeJean’s actions won over the trust and belief of his teammates. 

On top of working tirelessly on individual skills, Allen said DeJean would also set up training sessions with his football teammates away from organized practice. 

“When he was a receiver, as a sophomore, he would always go out early,” Allen said. “He and the quarterback would work together. Then, as a junior and senior when he was the quarterback, he was always getting kids together. Whether it be in the offseason or in camp, before practice, or whatever. 

“He just had that innate ability to get kids to want to be better. He didn’t have to make them come or anything like that. It was just, ‘Hey, Coop wants us to do it,’ and the kids really believed in him.”

Although the Iowa sophomore may not be a bonafide leader in the Iowa defensive back room just yet — seniors Riley Moss, Terry Roberts, and Merriweather are pretty set in guiding roles this season — Ferentz said DeJean has been a steady force off the field for his team. 

While leading the Hawkeyes in interceptions, solo tackles, and pass breakups, the 19-year-old has been consistently trying to improve. 

“He’s the same guy every day,” Ferentz said after the Rutgers game. “ … He’s just one of those guys. He’s just really grounded. He’s just really steady, very humble and, you know, a lot of really good players I’ve been around, that seems to be one of the trademarks. You know, they’re really humble guys. And, you know, I think he’s probably thinking about what he can do to get better, but, you know, it’s been impressive. Watching him play is impressive. 

“He’s just a football player.”