Manimal exposure

JONATHAN HUNTINGTON -- Sun Media

, Last Updated: 10:31 AM ET

The Manimal is about to be unleashed by the Edmonton Eskimos.

Justin Cooper - a.k.a. the Manimal - is going to make his CFL regular-season debut on Saturday in Regina on special teams.

In charge of busting apart any wedges/walls formed by the Saskatchewan Roughriders' kickoff coverage unit, Cooper plays a critical role in trying to force the kick returner to veer off his intended running lane.

"He's half man and half animal," said veteran Edmonton defensive end Adam Braidwood, who thought of the nickname for his rookie teammate.

"He's going full speed every day and he looks like he was raised by bears."

Veteran special teams ace Mathieu Bertrand has a better description for Cooper: "He is a ball of muscle, he is so strong. He is not scared of anything."

At six-foot-one and 250 pounds, the 25-year-old central Alberta native definitely packs a major punch when he runs into you at full speed.

The Eskimos need to have some head-hunters on special teams this year, which is something they were missing last year when they gave up a stunning six touchdowns against.

"I am the wedge buster. I got to get there first - or be one of the first guys - to create havoc there and make the returner veer off his lane," said Cooper in the Eskimos' locker-room yesterday.

"That is my role and I am happy to have it."

That is surely an understatement because it has been a long eight-year road to get to the CFL.

Five years with the Edmonton Huskies followed by three years with the University of Manitoba Bisons, Cooper has paid his dues.

"Finally some of the hard work and long days are paying off," said Cooper, who grew up on a farm 10 minutes east of Red Deer.

Edmonton is certainly going with a youth movement on special teams this year.

Under the guidance of new assistant coach Noel Thorpe, the unit has to be much better if the Esks want to make any serious noise this season.

Giving up touchdowns on special teams is a massive boost of confidence for the other team. Edmonton saw it happen too many times in 2007.

Cooper could help turn the tables this year.

"I think he brings some physical attributes that we look for on special teams," Thorpe explained.

"He is powerful, strong and most importantly, he is a fearless competitor.

"This guy has a lot of heart.

"He is going to run through a wall for you.

"He is in a crucial role (on the kickoff team)."

A third-round pick in this spring's draft, Cooper left the U of M with plenty of accolades last year.

The defensive MVP of the East-West Bowl, he also registered 16 sacks for Manitoba.

That brought him Canada West outstanding lineman of the year and a first-team All-Canadian honour in the CIS.


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