With the Florida Gators looking to get into the end zone for the first time, Dan Mullen called on the most highly recruited offensive prospect of his 2018 signing class.
The result? A tie game, a momentum swing — and the peak of what has been a turning point as of late for wide receiver Jacob Copeland.
The Pensacola native hauled in three passes for a team-high 89 yards in Saturday’s 38-27 victory over South Carolina, including the early game-tying score. On Monday, Copeland was named SEC Freshman of the Week.
For many — presumably Copeland included — the 37-yard touchdown elicited a response along the likes of “finally”.
But as the former Escambia High standout can attest, a seamless transition to the collegiate level more often than not isn’t the case.
“You’ve just got to stay focused at all times. I was having difficulty with a little bit of the playbook or whatever, but I just stayed focused, maintained and played my game. Coach (Dan) Mullen always says, ‘Play your game’,” Copeland said. “Everybody doesn’t learn the same. Some players may have to walk through the plays, some players may have to do this and that read. He just says, ‘Play your way. Do everything you do, what’s best for you, and it will play out all right’.”
It didn’t help that Copeland dealt with a nagging quad injury during his first season in Gainesville, which essentially eliminated any hope the redshirt freshman had of making an instant impact.
Struggling with a reserve role for the first time in his playing career, Copeland admitted it was tough to trust the process while aware of his own talent level; he credited Florida’s receiving corps — the unit he’s competing with, yet a group that’s become like family — with helping him keep the faith that a performance like Saturday’s was right around the corner.
“The receivers, like Freddie Swain, Van Jefferson, Josh Hammond, Tyrie Cleveland, Trevon Grimes. They all kept me motivated because I kept dealing with injuries. They just told me to stay focused and it’s all going to play out,” Copeland said. “Knowing I got people behind my back, knowing I got seniors ahead of me, and knowing that they want their touches too, because they want to get out of here and make something big happen in life, just knowing they’ve got my back — that’s love.”
Over the past several weeks, Copeland has resembled the seniors more and more — not from a play standpoint, but from his attention to detail in practice. It’s well-known that clean play in practice leads to in-game reps, yet, like the transition to the collegiate level, it’s something that’s easier said than done.
For Copeland, that was a lesson learned the hard way.
“I think the biggest thing for him, he’s had the last two weeks he’s been much better in practice, a different player in practice than he was. And not playmaking, I’ve watched him make plays. This is a different player in the discipline in what he’s doing and knowing his assignment, knowing how to run routes, which I think for young guys that’s the hard thing,” Mullen said of Copeland. “That, you know, ‘coach, don’t you see me making these great plays, I’m a playmaker’. I say, ‘I do, but then I see you go the wrong way sometimes’. I mean, you got to be disciplined and exact, and the last two weeks he’s really done a good job of that, of improving that way and you saw it. So I think he’s gotten a lot more trust from everybody and you saw he has the ability to make plays.”
Now, having established the foundation and gotten his feet wet, the time is nigh for Copeland to become a consistent presence in Florida’s offense. With arguably the largest game of the season looming, Copeland’s emergence into a reliable weapon may not have come at a better time for a Florida team firmly in the driver’s seat.
“I just got to keep getting better each week with my teammates, make sure that they help me and I help them. Everybody stays motivated, and we keep going,” Copeland said. “Knowing that there was a big game for us with difficult weather, we stayed focused and came out with a ‘W’.”