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WINNSBORO, S.C. – Russell Blackston saw too much of Ralph Cooper during the South Carolina high school football playoffs. And figures the Big Ten will see plenty of the Illinois-bound linebacker in the next few seasons.
Cooper helped Winnsboro (S.C.) Fairfield Central beat Blackston's Belton-Honea Path Bears 35-28.
"We definitely had to find out where he was at," Blackston said. "He's got size. He's got speed."
What Cooper didn't have was a bunch of scholarship offers. He picked Illinois over his only official option, Georgia Tech.
"I had other schools interested, but they were slow playing it," Cooper said. "They were like, 'Maybe we will, but I don't know when.' "
Cooper's first visit to Illinois was in April. He came back a couple of weeks ago for his official visit. But the first trip would have been enough for Cooper, who said he was tempted to stay on campus.
Knowing his heart was with Illinois, Cooper watched the team during the 2010 season. As often as possible.
"I was seeing if I could see myself playing a part in their defense," Cooper said.
He knew one of the linebackers, Nate Bussey, was graduating. What he didn't know as he watched the 2010 team was Martez Wilson's status. In January, Wilson announced he was entering the NFL draft a year early.
"If he stayed, I could learn from him," Cooper said. "If he left, I had a chance to come on the field quicker.
"My goal is to be the impact guy next year, to be honest."
Cooper was a starter as a freshman at Fairfield Central. During that season, he started thinking about playing beyond high school.
Without an offers close to home, he's willing to travel to the Midwest to continue his career.
Will he be a little homesick? Maybe. But that's part of the deal.
"I'm not going to stay home and not play," Cooper said.
Cooper, who will be a part of a signing ceremony at the school on Wednesday, becomes the first Griffin to sign with a Big Ten school.
Scouting services rate the 6-foot, 225-pounder a three-star prospect. His height might have worked against him in recruiting, Cooper said.
"I'm a little short when compared to everyone else, but I'm bringing some fire," Cooper said.