EAST RUTHERFORD, NJ – Just before heading into the cafeteria after practice, Quinton Coples jokingly raises his hand in the air, up and out of the reach of a Jets public relations staff worker, looking for a high five.
The 6 foot 6 inch, 290-pound linebacker lets out a deep laugh as he watches her she jump and struggle to meet his skyward arm before mercifully lowering his hand to meet hers. Moments earlier, Coples admitted that, much like his wingspan, he has a “big personality.” Someone who gets joy out of making people laugh, whether they are his teammates, family members, sick kids, or team staffers.
The only problem being, up until these last few weeks, Coples’ big-time personality hadn’t been matched with big-time production. That, along with the emergence of his teammates along the defensive line, left Coples on the outside of the white-hot spotlight.
A place his personality would suggest, isn’t where he’d like to be.
But any criticism of Coples’ play this season must be scrutinized through the correct lens, and if he deserved any flack for how he preformed during the first eight games, he deserves all the more credit for how he is finishing.
After completing his rookie season with a team-high five and half sacks, Coples was asked to move from defensive end to 3-4 outside linebacker, no small transition for a man of his size. On top of that, Coples fractured his ankle during the second preseason game, costing him two preseason and two regular season games along with invaluable learning time.
To expect him to become Aldon Smith overnight was unrealistic; to have him do so while overcoming an injury is just, well, ridiculous.
Yet, just as the calls for Coples benching were reaching a fever pitch, the second year man out of North Carolina responded with what Mohammed Wilkerson called a “break-out” game against the New Orleans Saints, which included a tackle for a loss on 4th and 19 to end the game.
And he’s been improving ever since. In just thirteen games, Coples is seventh in the league at the linebacker position with 17 quarterback hits, including nine tackles for loss, three passes defensed and one forced fumble. He has three and a half sacks in his last four games and his confidence is burgeoning.
“I think the game plan is getting a little shorter, everything is starting to work out in my favor in more situations,” he said. “Everything is going well, I’m definitely a lot more confident.”
When the Jets took Sheldon Richardson with the 13th overall pick in 2013, in launched Coples into a world of uncertainty. It seemed curious that the Jets would take Richardson, with Coples, a first round pick who played the same position, already in toe. However, Coples’ move to linebacker now rounds out a young defensive front with loads of potential.
“These young guys, I think as it gets going, there’s no reason they shouldn’t be one of the top groups in the league,” said head coach Rex Ryan about his defensive front which now includes back-to-back-to-back first round picks.
Coples attributes much of his development to Wilkerson, his former prep school teammate, who took him under his wing after being drafted. Now, even after his move to linebacker, Coples still considers himself part of the “front four,” which includes Wilkerson, Richardson, and Damon “Snacks” Harrison.
“We’re definitely close knit,” he said. “We talk about anything and everything. It’s great.”
“I think that’s a young group that has the potential to be around for a long time,” said Ryan.
So, after undergoing some early growing pains, Coples, in two less games and with one more left to play, sits just one sack removed from his rookie total. And regardless of whether he gets it, the big guy, with the big personality should remain a big-time piece in the Jets rebuilding effort.