Copeland said he tore his ACL early in his senior season of high school and ended up with one offer: New Mexico State. He played there for one season, but left for Navarro — a junior college in Texas — because he knew he could play for a bigger program.
In 10 games for Navarro, he recorded 116 tackles and five sacks. The Tar Heels reached out with an offer, and Copeland jumped at the opportunity to play for a higher profile school.
“It’s been awesome,” he said. “At New Mexico State, I played against LSU at LSU, and that was the only big game I’d ever played in.
“I knew coming here that the exposure, the fans, the fan base and just the whole atmosphere would be different.”
Copeland has backed up Cole Holcomb at linebacker this season. As a result, Papuchis says Copeland hasn’t had a chance to make his mark on this year’s defense. But his time is coming.
“I think when his time comes — because it will, whether that means because of injury or just because of opportunity — he’s going to have to step in and play a role for us at some point,” Papuchis said. “And when that happens, I think he’ll be ready for it.”
This Saturday against Virginia, middle linebacker Andre Smith will be suspended for the first half after committing a targeting penalty against Miami last weekend. Defensive coordinator Gene Chizik has tapped Ayden Bonilla to start, because he can handle some of the mental demands of the middle linebacker position.
“That’s a position that encompasses a lot of moving parts, in pass coverage and then controlling the front, because it’s more or less the quarterback of the defense,” Chizik said. “He mentally can handle that.”
But Copeland and the entire linebacking corps will be ready to fill Smith’s void.
“It’s tough losing Andre,” Copeland said. “But we have Ayden over here, Ayden Bonilla, he’s been working his butt off all season. I really don’t think there is going to be a step down at all.”
“We are all rallying around Andre, and we’ve all got the defense’s back.”