By KASSIDY HILL
GatorBait Special Reporter
The feeling in Ben Hill Griffin Stadium was primed for excitement. As the Florida Gators rolled towards the fourth quarter already up 31-0 on UT-Martin, the remaining strains of Tom Petty hung in the air and the offense took the field just nine yards shy of the goal line.
Quarterback Kyle Trask dropped back and delivered a dart over the middle to receiver Jacob Copeland; touchdown.
The requisite fireworks went off, the band struck up the fight song, arms went into the air as fans celebrated. But nowhere in the Swamp at the moment was the excitement more real and overwhelming than on the Gators sideline.
Copeland, the redshirt freshman who battled through injuries and obstacles, had finally made the debut fans and players alike had been waiting for and notched that memorable first touchdown.
Senior receiver Van Jefferson had to be held back by strength and conditioning coach Nick Savage, so as not to receive a penalty for going too far past the sidelines.
“Jacob Copeland, I mean I thought he had a great game today. Got his first college touchdown,” bragged Jefferson.
“I was running on the field man, trying to run on the field but Coach Savage was holding me back.”
Once on the sidelines, Copeland was bombarded by his teammates with a celebration that didn’t let up for the remainder of the game, as receiver Tre Grimes explained.
“I don’t think we stopped talking to him after his touchdown. It’s phenomenal you know he’s been through a lot with his injuries and stuff like that. To see him back on the field, going hard and going strong is phenomenal and like I said we’re very happy for him.”
The long road to a night with 38 total yards (one rush, three receptions) and one touchdown has winded for a year and a half, since Copeland first arrived as the 4-star wide out from Escambia, the cherry on top of Dan Mullen’s first recruiting class.
Copeland has existed largely in the shadows. As the highest rated recruit in that 2018 class, the hope was that he would make an immediate impact. Yet he was injured as a true freshman then tweaked the injury again in spring practice, meaning so little has actually been seen Copeland as a Gator. His freshman year saw only one catch for 16 yards and one kick return for 26 yards against Idaho. He did see snaps against FSU and Michigan and was able to redshirt.
Teammates, specifically fellow receivers, made it a point to keep Copeland involved in every possible way they could off the field and give encouragement when needed.
"It’s hard. It’s more of a mental game. I’ve been through it,” said Grimes.
“I had an ACL injury coming out of high school. I talk to him, that’s my roommate when we go to the hotel and we talk a lot and it’s a honor for him to be able to go out there and show what he has to do. There was a couple of times where he got a screen and to get like an extra 15 yards.”
What he has to do couldn’t come at a better time for the No. 8/9 Gators. After losing do-it all scat cat Kadarius Toney to a shoulder injury (Toney will be out for at least a couple of weeks according to head coach Dan Mullen) Copeland’s skill set provides an answer to the loss.
Safety Donovan Stiner, who faces Copeland in practice, was careful not to force Toney’s game on Copeland, commenting—“I’m not going to necessarily say that they’re the exact same player. I think they do different things, but yeah, I think he can. He’s really talented, so I think he’ll make a lot of plays,” but added the following.
“He’s really talented. He can make a lot of things happen. He’s really talented. He’s strong, he’s fast, so I’m looking forward to seeing what he can do since KT is out for now.”
Added Mullen, “He’s a physical guy. Has size. He has that ability where he’s a little bit multiple. He’s still learning how to be an every-down receiver. But a lot like Kadarius in that way, you can do different things, put the ball in his hands and he can make things happen. A little different style than Kadarius. It’s not like hey, we’re going to plug him in with what things Kadarius was doing. But there are some things that he does pretty well with the ball in his hands.”
During limited snaps his true freshman year, Copeland primarily saw time at receiver and was also used as a kick returner. But on Saturday night, he took snaps at both receiver and running back, showing a versatility that defensive players have already seen in practice.
“You can put him anywhere on the field and he’s gonna make plays,” noted corner Marco Wilson.
"That was really only the first time he got to do something serious in a game and that’s only the beginning for him, I think that guy is gonna be a great player for the season to come.”
Coaches and players alike have teased what the redshirt freshman has done in practice, giving hope to fans as to what he’d do when finally on the field. Receiver coach Billy Gonzales said in spring practice, “one of the practices I was blown away. I was like ‘wow’, you kind of forget like a little kid when you forget about that little toy that you haven’t had in a while. Oh my gosh. He was explosive, in and out of breaks.”
But for quarterback Feleipe Franks, seeing what Copeland was able to do on the field when healthy was never as impactful as seeing how he was off the field while hurt.
“It’s just more his grit, the way when players get injured and things don’t go the way they want, how do they respond? I think that he’s responded in all the right ways by continuing to keep his body healthy, continuing to do the right steps to maintain his body healthy.
"I think that’s important when you first get to college and things don’t go the way you want them to go. Just continuing to have that mindset of, you know, ‘I’m not going to stop here just because I’m hurt. I’m going to continue to battle through this, get healthy again and just continue to grind.’ I think he has done a really good job of that.”
Now though the path has straightened to give Jacob Copeland an opportunity to finally make the impact Gator Nation has been waiting to see.
As Tre Grimes put simply, “he’s a phenomenal player and he’s gonna be one of the best when it’s his time to come.”