From coast to coast, at every FBS program across the country, spring football represents a time when those lesser-known performers who have waited in the wings receive the chance to emerge from the shadows.
And at USC, where a new coaching staff with fresh ideas and philosophies has created an atmosphere where every team member is starting out with a clean slate, perhaps no under-the-radar player has made a more pronounced statement with his play this spring -- at least through the first three workouts -- than junior tight end Jalen Cope-Fitzpatrick.
Showcasing sure hands and impressive athleticism to go along with a 6-foot-4 and 245-pound frame, Cope-Fitzpatrick -- who made just three receptions in his initial two seasons on campus -- seemed to reel in almost everything thrown in his direction during the first week of drills.
“I think Jalen has really focused himself on trying to come out and having a good spring,” said USC coach Steve Sarkisian following a particularly strong showing by Cope-Fitzpatrick on Thursday. “He’s an athletic guy, he’s got tremendous ball skills and I think he’s seen a real opportunity to step up and make plays, and he’s doing it.”
That much is certain. With Xavier Grimble and his 69 career catches now off to the NFL draft and the Trojans’ other talented 2013 co-starter at tight end, Randall Telfer, still being held out of action because of injury, Sarkisian has had no other choice but to rely on Cope-Fitzpatrick, and to the former Rocklin (Calif.) Whitney standout's credit, he’s answered the call.
“I feel a lot more focused than before,” Cope-Fitzpatrick said after practice Saturday. “Now that I’m going to be a junior, an upperclassman, I feel like I have the chance to position myself into a starting role. So, I’m really trying to push myself to fill that role and to fill the need of the team, and to just kind of put my head down and work.”
Cope-Fitzpatrick has also seen his responsibilities skyrocket as a direct result of the Trojans’ new up-tempo, no-huddle offense, which places an emphasis on making use of the tight end as weapon in the passing game -- something Sarkisian did with great success at Washington with Austin Seferian-Jenkins, the 2013 John Mackey Award winner.
For Cope-Fitzpatrick, the switch from former coach Lane Kiffin’s offense, which didn’t utilize the tight end as a receiving threat on a consistent basis, to Sarkisian’s offense was welcomed, to say the least.
In fact, the only negative for Cope-Fitzpatrick so far is that Grimble -- who, along with Telfer, played an important role as a mentor throughout the last two years -- isn’t around to reap the rewards.
“I’m upset my big brother, Xavier, isn’t back,” Cope-Fitzpatrick said. “I really wish that he came back so all three of us could enjoy the fruits of this new system. It’s very tight end-friendly. I’m excited, and I think the tight ends are going to do really big things.”
Come fall camp, the Trojans will also insert highly touted Class of 2014 signee Bryce Dixon into the mix, adding another exciting piece to a group that, in addition to Cope-Fitzpatrick and Telfer, will also feature walk-ons Chris Willson, Shane Sullivan, Teddy Baker and Connor Spears.
New tight ends coach Marques Tuiasosopo has already made a positive impression on Cope-Fitzpatrick. A former Huskies quarterback who also played for the Oakland Raiders and the New York Jets before embarking on his coaching career, Tuiasosopo commands a special level of respect. Cope-Fitzpatrick was already very familiar with Tuiasosopo before he landed at USC as an assistant.
“He’s great. I definitely see a lot of Raider in him, and being a Raiders fan, I’ve always liked that attitude growing up,” Cope-Fitzpatrick said. “He’s just a positive guy, and he pushes me and really wants me to succeed. It’s great to have that kind of support. I’m really learning a lot from him, especially when it comes to the complexities of the offense. He has a quarterback’s mind, so he’s really helping me with reading defenses.”
With the promise that Cope-Fitzpatrick has shown this month, there’s certainly reason for optimism when it comes to his future. But with only three practice sessions in the books this spring, he’s not about to get ahead of himself, and he freely admits that he still has much to learn and a whole lot more to prove as he makes a bid to take on an expanded role in the USC offense in 2014.
“I just want to continue to develop,” Cope-Fitzpatrick said. “One thing that I really want to work on is just getting the offense down, just really being on top of stuff so I can play that much faster. And then once I learn the offense, I can start critiquing the little things. But right now, it’s just about taking baby steps.”