Jacob Copeland sat forward, elbows on his knees and a slight smile on his face as he spun his head from one reporter to another. Talking to local media for this first time since arriving in Gainesville, there was a small crowd flanked around the redshirt freshman, each leaning in for what became an intimate conversation about not only the afternoon performance by the receiver, but the road he took to arrive in that moment.
Because, this game was a long time coming for Jacob Copeland.
The former four-star has come through injury, then another injury, then adjustments to college and a crowded receiver room to get to this game.
There were glimpses against UT-Martin when he had three receptions for 23 yards and a touchdown. But on Saturday in Columbia, with the rain falling and quarterback Kyle Trask looking for options beyond his normal targets, Copeland put together his best career game as a Gator and exhibited the skills coaches and fans have spoken of in hushed tones, waiting to see them appear for the past year and a half.
We could point to the first catch he had against the Gamecocks in route to the No. 7 Florida Gators 38-27 win. But really this maturation began two weeks ago.
“The last two weeks he’s been much better in practice, a different player in practice than he was,” explained head coach Dan Mullen.
“And not playmaking, I’ve watched him make plays. This 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. 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.”
So when Mullen pulled Copeland aside earlier in the week and commended him for that marked improvement, the Pensacola native took it to heart.
“He always says, ‘Be ready,’ and that’s what I was. I stayed in, my team kept me motivated, and I just stayed ready at all times. When my number was called, I made a play,” said Copeland.
It’s no easy task, staying ready for limited opportunities, especially when you’ve little to none with which to use as a template. Copeland credits the other receivers for keeping him motivated and Freddie Swain explained it takes always looking over the playbook on the plane, staying solid with everything. But it can be just as much a mental game as physical, a maturity typically gained only through actual experience. For Copeland—and the entire team—Mullen and staff ask that they navigate these murky waters in whatever way works best for them, so that when their time comes, they’re their best self.
“I’ve seen a lot of improvement,” said Trask of Copeland.
“He works really, really hard, and especially coming from high school to college just the game, the game speed and all the different plays, obviously a lot more plays and I think he’s really just grasping a lot more and it’s showing on the field.”
“You’ve just got to stay focused at all times,” clarified Copeland.
“I was having difficulty with a little bit of the playbook or whatever, but I just stayed focused, maintained and played my game. Coach Mullen always says, ‘Play your game.’ 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 alright.’”
On Saturday, it did play out alright. His first play—during a day that featured three for 89 yards and a touchdown—was a seam that went for 32 yards, half of that (16 yards) comes from yards after the catch. Making the grab and splitting the receivers for the YAC was the moment Copeland felt he needed to kickstart his day.
“Knowing that I made a catch in the difficult weather, that shows coaches a lot, like, ‘He’s one of the players that we can count on.’ Not that they can’t call on any other player, but they were confident in me. I caught that, and they were like, ‘Let’s keep giving him shots and see what he can do with it.’ At the end of the day, I trust Coach and he trusts me.”
The trust was there ten-fold in the second quarter. Down 10-3 and having had little offensive production to that point, Trask lofted a rainbow, tracked for Copeland who was between two defenders. It was high—where Trask explained he wanted it placed for only Copeland to have a chance—and the 6’ receiver climbed the ladder to make the grab.
"He's an athlete, he probably has one of the highest [verticals] on the team, he's fast, he's quick. He's a great player,” expounded Swain.
Copeland came down with the catch, bounced off a defender and hoofed it the last 15-yards for the 37-yard touchdown.
Receivers swarmed, teammates celebrated, Billy Gonzales excitedly knocked the fire out of Copeland’s helmet and his first touchdown against a SEC opponent—and a FBS opponent for that matter—was the moment that Jacob Copeland had been waiting for.
“They were all excited for me, because knowing that last year was a setback for me having injuries back-to-back. When I’m down, my teammates kept me up. They stayed with me, keeping me motivated through it all. They said, ‘Stay focused and everything will play out right.’ And today, when my number was called, I just made the plays that count.”