Cedric Calhoun isn’t 100% sure who made the initial discovery.
Regardless, when Calhoun, defensive line coach at Rice University, was presented with some film of Mt. Lebanon native Coleman Coco’s time as a defensive end at Colgate in the days following the 2022 season, he said he immediately knew what he had to do.
“We saw his tape, and his name was buzzing through our facility,” Calhoun recalled Monday afternoon. “We watched him as a staff, and we were like, ‘OK, let’s go.’
“I said, ‘Coach, I’ll go up and see him,’” added Calhoun of his conversation with Rice head coach Mike Bloomgren. “I knew I had to get down to Springfield, Missouri, the next day, so I caught two flights that morning, and when I got to Syracuse I only had like four hours with him because his time was strict and my time was strict.”
Calhoun said he made his pitch to Coco, then a fresh entry into the NCAA transfer portal, in regard to Rice’s program and the players along the Owls’ defensive line he had to replace, including Atlanta Falcons free agent signing Ikenna Enechukwu.
“I loved his demeanor,” said Calhoun of Coco, a 2018 Mt. Lebanon graduate. “I loved how he was on time. I loved how he asked questions. I loved his eye contact the whole time.”
As it turned out, Coco was equally impressed.
After Coco said he received several offers from Power Five conference schools, including Pitt, he chose Rice without making a visit to campus.
“It’s very different to recruit an 18-year-old vs. a 23-year-old,” Coco said. “There’s things that are flashy and an 18-year-old likes, like the locker room and the uniforms and the dining halls.
“I wanted to go to a program where I knew the defensive line coach is about his business and the program is about what I really thought about was my style of football.”
So far, Coco’s decision to make the more than 1,600-mile move from Colgate’s Hamilton, New York, campus to join Rice’s American Athletic Conference program in Houston, Texas, has been a good one.
A 6-foot-5, 264-pound defensive end, Coco has recorded 10 total tackles, 2½ for a loss, to go along with 2½ sacks in Rice’s first two games of the 2023 season at Texas and against crosstown-rival Houston.
Calhoun said Coco’s performance against the Cougars on Saturday — which included four tackles, two assisted, two tackles for a loss and two sacks — was particularly impressive.
“He’s smart and he’s tough and he’s a hard worker,” said the coach, now in his sixth season at Rice. “His redeeming qualities are his explosiveness, his power with his eyes, hands and feet and his motor. His motor is unbelievable. He plays with reckless abandon. The kid plays hard. He loves the game. He plays the game like he’s from Pittsburgh.”
In 30 career games over five seasons at Colgate, which competes at the FCS level, Coco recorded 92 tackles — 18 for a loss with nine sacks. He was named an All-Patriot League second-team player as a left defensive end in 2022, racking up 40 tackles, eight for a loss with three sacks, over 453 snaps.
While Coco said his time at Colgate certainly prepared him to play at the FBS level, receiving the caliber of training and playing with a higher depth of talent at Rice has been beneficial to his development.
“Rice has a ton of talent,” Coco said. “I think we are still underrated compared to what a lot of people thought. A lot of people thought we were going to lose to Houston by 40. We, in our room, knew we were going to win the game weeks beforehand.
“It’s definitely a little bit faster,” he added. “You’re playing against dudes that are going to get drafted, at Texas, at [Darrell K. Royal–Texas Memorial Stadium] and then Week 2 at home against Houston with a left tackle that’s an All-American. It’s a little different.”
For Calhoun, the transition has been seamless for Coco.
“He’s done a great job just walking in, being a team guy,” Calhoun said. “The defensive line, the brotherhood with our squad is really, really deep. He loves these dudes. He loves working with them daily. He loves the meetings. He loves engaging in different concepts and techniques of what we do up front within the defense, and he’s really grown.”
Calhoun said Coco’s greatest attribute might just be his position flexibility.
“He can play from the four, to the five, to the six, to the nine,” Calhoun said. “He can play the three technique. He’s really showing different elements of his game from different spots.”
For Coco, though, his greatest ability is in helping his defense be better against the run. He said his addition to playing across from fellow pass rusher Josh Pearcy — along with defensive linemen De’Braylon Carroll, Izeya Floyd and Blake Boenisch — makes Rice’s defensive front formidable.
“They knew I would be the puzzle piece that would fit in,” Coco said. “They had a talented team last year, they just struggled to stop the run a little bit. So they plug a guy like me into defense that’s, I would say, more of a run-stopping guy, and we’re getting it done. We are seeing all of the opportunity we have ahead of us.”
For Coco, that also means making another move after his two years of eligibility at Rice are finished.
“What I’m looking to get out of it is just to continue to play my style of ball and get my education, but if the NFL happens, the NFL happens,” Coco said. “Right now, it’s just about beating Texas Southern.”
Calhoun, who coached several former players that made NFL rosters, said Coco’s chances to play at the next level are real.
In addition to Enechukwu, Calhoun coached former Rice players Elijah Garcia, who is now with the Denver Broncos, and Myles Adams, who is a member of the Seattle Seahawks defense.
While at Alabama A&M, Calhoun coached former Indianapolis Colts defensive end Robert Mathis, who was a five-time Pro Bowler and 2013 AFC Defensive Player of the Year. He also presided over defensive end Tourek Williams’ tenure at Florida International before the San Diego Chargers drafted him in 2013.
“The way his trajectory is going here, he is going to be a solid, solid great player for us here,” Calhoun said of Coco. “He’ll get some postseason accolades, and I really believe he will definitely be on radars for the next level.
“He has the body type,” Calhoun added. “He has the will, and, man, he puts it on tape.”