The Kinston, N.C. native spent his sophomore season backing up current Seattle Seahawk E.J. Wilson at strongside defensive end, accumulating 22 tackles, 6.5 tackles for loss and five sacks. Fast forward to this past spring and Coples had assumed the starting role at end opposite Robert Quinn, while also working at defensive tackle in the nickel package to inject more speed and pass-rushing ability into the front line.
The NCAA review of the UNC football program has clouded the eligibility of starting defensive tackle Marvin Austin, so the coaching staff has moved the affable senior to the second team and replaced him with Coples.
"Right now, I'm there all of the time," Coples said. "But as time progresses, I'm going to go back out [to defensive end]. Basically, they just put me in that position to help the team because they know I can play both inside and out. So I'm just doing inside right now, because I played so much defensive end. They're trying to work me at defensive tackle just in case I have to go to defensive tackle."
The current first-team defensive line consists of four juniors – Coples and Tydreke Powell at tackle, and Quinn and Michael McAdoo at end.
Coples indicated that the transition between the two positions has been smooth. While defensive end allows for more freedom on the edge and focuses more on 1-on-1 combat, defensive tackle is typically responsible for handling two offensive linemen in the middle. The positions share a multitude of similarities, but require different techniques to be proficient.
Standing 6-foot-6, Coples looks more like a basketball player than a defensive tackle, but he carries his 280 pounds well enough to be effective.
"They want me to be 285, but being versatile, I can weigh 280 pounds and still gut it out because I have the strength to go along with the 280," Coples said.
With his height and frame, it would be easy for observers to assume that his center of gravity could be an issue in being effective in the trenches, but Coples dismisses the notion that tackles have to be short and stocky to be successful.
"I don't think there's anything to that," Coples said. "A lot of defensive tackles in the league are tall and offensive linemen are tall. So being shorter would give you a little bit of an advantage because of leverage, but other than that, it's a tall game these days. You've got to have running backs that are 6-foot unless they're really fast. It really doesn't matter as long as you've got great leverage."
With Austin's availability in question for portions or all of the 2010 season, the Tar Heels may be forced to turn to inexperienced players in the middle to create the 4-to-5 man rotation that head coach Butch Davis and defensive line coach John Blake prefer to employ. Red-shirt freshman Jared McAdoo is currently working alongside Austin on the second team, while true freshman Brandon Willis and junior Jordan Nix fill out the third-team unit.
"They've got a bright future," Coples said. "They're going to be very helpful for us as a team. Brandon Willis came in early and got a lot of experience in the spring. Jordan Nix has great explosion. He's going to be a big part of the rotation at tackle and so is McAdoo."
After coming off the bench for his first two seasons in Chapel Hill, it now appears that Coples is in position for two different starting roles in '10.