North Carolina returns all four defensive line starters from last year's eight-win season, including Quinton Coples, who played both tackle and end last year. He finished with 15.5 tackles for losses and 10.0 sacks and earned first-team All-ACC honors. This spring, he moved back to his natural position at end, and expectations should be even higher for him in 2011. I caught up with Coples recently to see just how he plans on doing that. Here are the highlights of our conversation.
You had such an impressive season last year. How do you build upon that?
Quinton Coples: Basically I feel like last year’s performance just showed people what I’m capable of doing. Right now I’m in the mindset of getting better, to exceed my goals I had last year, so everything I planned on doing last year, do it times two. Overall I just want to get better and get more fundamentally sound.
What kind of work have you been doing to do that? Can you give me any sense of how much bigger, faster and stronger you’ve gotten measurably?
QC: We haven’t been tested again yet. Overall I’m just working on my footwork, hand placement, and observing the different schemes the offense gives and talking to some of the offensive linemen and trying to become more of a student of the game. I feel like that’s one of the big aspects of my game I have to take advantage of this year, so that’s one of the things I’m most focused on, becoming a more complete player. I know a lot, but I want to be more crisp on some things that go on within a game.
With so much talent coming out of Carolina lately, is there pressure to uphold a tradition that’s developing there to become the next great NFL prospect/defensive lineman?
QC: I don’t sense a lot of pressure. For me, I just have to live up to the hype I guess, just go out and make sure I represent the University of North Carolina the best way I can.
Where do you think you made the most progress this spring, personally?
QC: I think I made the most progress mentally, turning my mental state back to defensive end, not just being a defensive tackle. I’m more focused on my position, my set position, going back to the old things of seeing how much space I’ve got, knowing who’s coming to block me, and becoming more of a student as a defensive end -- not a defensive tackle AND a defensive end.
How did playing out of position help you last year?
QC: Playing inside definitely helped me become stronger and more physical. It helped me mentally fight fatigue. The inside helped me become stronger and helped me understand what my fellow teammates are going through.
How much fun do you have just going after quarterbacks?
QC: Oh, it’s a lot of fun. It’s a rush I get when I hit a quarterback. It’s hard to explain, but the emotions, it’s just a big rush that comes over me when it’s time to go get a quarterback.
I think that’s the fundamental thing about it that’s easy to forget. You guys just like to hit people.
QC: That’s one of the main parts, taking off a quarterback’s head.
How much confidence did you gain last season racking up such impressive numbers out of position?
QC: A lot of confidence. It was time for me to have the opportunity to show the world what I’m capable of doing. I feel like there’s definitely going to be a bigger part for what I’ve got in store for this year. I feel like it was a great experience.
How did the defense look overall from your perspective, now that spring is over?
QC: Defensively we looked pretty good. We've still got some areas of the defense we're still working on and trying to get better -- not just one position, but overall. We've got young, athletic guys who are in the back end, and we've got two or three linebackers who have experience. All of the position groups are in a training process, making sure the young guys are up to par and willing to step in when it's their time.