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August 25, 2011Most everybody knew when they watched Quinton Coples play at Kinston High School and then at Hargrave Military Academy back in the day that he had tremendous potential as a defensive end.
What they didn't know---what few could have known at the time---was that Coples would win up being a first-team All-ACC player at 2010 for North Carolina at defensive tackle.
Forced insde after Carolina lost starter Marvin Austin to his myriad of mistakes, Coples' production and health were two key reasons why the UNC defensive line remained competitive last fall and helped the 2010 Tar Heels win eight games for the third straight year.
This year Coples has redirected back to defensive end, and it's been a good move for him as he prepares for his final run of games in the powder blue.
"It's been great (back at end). At first it's a big adjustment because I'm used to taking on two, three people (inside). Right now I've definitely got a lot of freedom, and it's definitely been a great feeling," he said.
North Carolina's front four is definitely going to be one of the strong points of the team heading into the season.
"I always feel like the D-line is the anchor of the team, and we always set the example for everybody and do the things to get the crowd into it, and get the offense ready," Coples said. "I just feel like we're definitely always going to be the anchor, and we take pride in holding that position."
UNC has a pair of starting defensive ends in Coples and Donte Paige-Moss who will likely be playing on Sundays this time a year from now.
That can also likely be said of defensive tackle Tydreke Powell, who is a key part of a three-man primary interior rotation that also includes Jordan Nix and Sylvester Williams.
"We're loaded with talent, but I would guess you could say the newcomer, Sylvester Williams, definitely stands out. He's obtained a starting position, so he's definitely good," Coples said. "We still have Jordan Nix, which is going to definitely help us out a lot too."
With Coples back outside at the strong-side defensive end position, he's looking forward to seeing what he and Paige-Moss can do together.
The fact that they're both so talented is going to make it challenging for opposing offensive lines to give too much attention to one or the other.
"It gives each other (myself and Paige-Moss) a better chance to make plays, you know. They just can't double-team me and leave him open or double-team him and leave me open," Coples said. "I feel like it's great, and it helps the defense out a lot."
"We've also got two strong defensive tackles in there. So it's definitely going to be a lot of issues up front for another team."
UNC is working to build quality depth in the trenches behind Coples, Paige-Moss, and the defensive tackles.
"It's been great (in training camp)," Coples said. "I've learned a lot as far as playing with the young boys and understanding the concepts of the new defense that we've put in and things of that nature."
Guys like Kareem Martin, Tim Jackson, and an array of tackles including Ethan Farmer, Shawn Underwood, and Devonte Brown, have all been getting reps and competing this summer.
"As far as the young tackles, Devonte Brown and Shawn Underwood, they're definitely great and things of that nature. I think all the young D-linemen have definitely impressed us," Coples said. "Tim Jackson and Kareem (Martin), they're still young and up and coming, too."
"We've got a lot of size and a lot of athleticism. I think overall as a core, we're good at each position," he added.
One thing that's greatly aided Coples and the rest of the UNC defensive linemen this summer is competing against an ever-improving Tar Heel offensive line.
Coples' daily battles against the likes of James Hurst and Brennan Williams were challenges that should pay dividends all around for the Tar Heels come autumn.
"I think they're great," Coples said of Hurst and Williams. "I think they've matured. I think they got an opportunity last year to actually mature and get game experience, and now they've taken off with it. They've taken it to another level, and I think they're going to be great."
"I've seen them do great pass protections and great run blocks, so I'm excited for them."
"I don't know for sure, but I feel like they're one of the elite offensive lines in the conference. So definitely I think it's helping us a lot being able to battle it out, and I think it's helping both ways," Coples continued.
One of the goals for Coples and the UNC defensive line this summer is to help make the situation easier for Carolina's secondary by putting constant pressure on opposing quarterbacks while also neutralizing the line of scrimmage.
UNC's cornerback situation is a little tricky heading into the season opener, but Coples is hopeful they can do their part to make things easier on guys like Tim Scott and Todd Harrelson, who will get their first-ever collegiate work at cornerback come September.
"It's very important (to make plays to help the secondary), but I think that we still have lot of talent back there and a lot of athletes that can actually go make plays back there," Coples said.
"We have to allow the young boys to come in and basically learn the playbook and make plays, as we did the year before."
"The back half of the defense, as far as young boys, they have to learn the playbook, but they definitely are athletes, and they are good at football. So I think we did great at recruiting. That's how I feel about them," Coples added.
It's been a fascinating run for Coples in Chapel Hill, and its a little surprising and somewhat bittersweet for him that he's in his final months as a Tar Heel player.
"I guess just realizing this is my last go-around of college football, it's just sinking in right now a little bit. But I'm enjoying it at the same time. It's been a great feeling. It's my last journey," Coples said.
"I don't try to get caught up in that (thinking about it being my last season), because that's kind of sad, but I've enjoyed my time here at Carolina and I'll continue to enjoy my time at Carolina. I'm just taking it day by day right now."
Coples was part of a publicized situation earlier this year when he was seen out with several Tar Heel players that were part of last year's NCAA investigation, but he was cleared from any wrongdoing.
He was surprised at the incredible number of infractions stemming from the recent Yahoo! Sports report into the University of Miami's football program.
"I've caught a couple of things on TV about Miami. It's sad to hear about the program, but there's nothing I can do about it, and now we're just focusing on Carolina football," he said.
While he's managed to keep himself out of any trouble that could have jeopardized his eligibility at North Carolina, Coples is trying to mentor his younger teammates so they can avoid some of the traps that some of his former teammates got caught into.
"I just basically want to prep the guys on how to stay humble and to reach for their goals in life, and enjoy the time that you're here, because you can easily get distracted. It's not just about partying. You've got to get your education," he said.
"You can have fun academically, but people don't really see that side. They just see you go to a party, and that's the only fun you can have in college. But it's a lot more to it, the organization and stuff. That's what I try to illustrate to them."
"Outside of going to parties, do other things and enjoy your time, because before you know it, it will be over," Coples added.
The senior defensive standout had a message for Tar Heel fans still reeling from the shocking termination of Butch Davis.
"Just come out and support us. It was a decision made by the Chancellor and the board of the school or whatever, and we just have to deal with it. Sometimes things don't go our way, but at the end of the day, you just have to move on," he said.
"And we're still going to be a great football team, just like Coach Davis wanted us to be."
Coples also had a message for opposing teams in the Atlantic Coast Conference that are going to have to deal with him and his UNC defensive mates this fall.
"Be aware---that's what I would say. Be aware of the Carolina defense, because we're going to come, and the objective is to punish," he said.
Coples finished our conversation by breaking down a few of his team and personal goals for his senior year at Carolina.
"Team-wise, I don't think we should lose no more than two games this year. I want to go undefeated, but if there were any losses to happen, no more than two," he said.
"Personally, I want to be the best player I can to help my team win, and I think that will take care of the rest of it."