Aug. 22, 2012
By Bob Socci
Tony Grantham was scouting the state of Texas, in a state of open mind, when he was given a lead about an intriguing high school sophomore roaming defensive backfields around San Antonio.
A well-established coach in the area, Lee Bridges, told Grantham of a prospect who fit the profile of a Naval Academy recruit. Bridges, Grantham understood, knew well of what he spoke.
While at Taft High, several of his players later reunited as teammates in Annapolis. Among them, Ram Vela is best remembered for his acrobatic attempt to sack the quarterback on the unforgettable afternoon of Nov. 3, 2007, the day Navy beat Notre Dame for the first time in 44 years.
By then, Bridges had relocated to San Antonio's Stevens High. It was there, just two weeks before ex-pupil Vela launched himself into the national spotlight for the Mids, that he noticed an athletic safety with O'Connor High.
Though relatively little, at 5-9 and 170 pounds, there was a lot to like about the kid wearing No. 2 across the way. Even for the opposing coach on the short end of a lopsided score. Bridges said as much to the Navy assistant Grantham.
And so began the courtship of Noah Copeland.
The following year Copeland transferred to Brandeis High, where he excelled on the other side of scrimmage as a tailback. Soon he started hearing from Grantham, whose timing was, let's say, less than impeccable.
"Coach Grantham was calling me since junior year," a smiling Copeland says. "But he would always (reach) me at my girlfriend's house, so I didn't really talk to him (much)."
Fortunately, they stayed in touch. Remarkably, few others bothered to call at all.
Copeland's phone rarely rang well into his senior year, when he amassed nearly 2,400 yards and 35 touchdowns on a run deep into the Texas Class 5-A playoffs. Helping Brandeis to the state quarterfinals, he reached the end zone 11 times in the postseason alone. Six of his scores came in a 318-yard performance at the Alamodome, in a rout of Pflugerville.
These were eye-popping numbers, in an area sprouting connections to every service academy. And yet neither of Navy's arch rivals set their sights on him. Making it especially surprising is Copeland's family history: his father, Frederick, is an Air Force retiree.
Whether or not he was on the minds of others, Copeland had other things on his mind.
"I wasn't really worried about getting a scholarship as much I was worrying about trying to win state (playoffs) in high school," he says. "I was trying to worry about bringing the team together. It wasn't more about myself in high school, it was more about the team and how far we can go.
"My coaches were telling me to just keep playing and staying the course, that somebody's going to come by."
There turned out to be two somebodies. One was his hometown University of Incarnate Word, a member of Division II. The other was the Naval Academy. Initially, Copeland committed to UIW. But then Grantham persuaded him to visit Annapolis.
"After playoffs ended, I went up there," Copeland says, "and fell in love with it."
At the same time, Navy coaches were smitten with his vast potential and versatile talents. He projected to be either an "A" back -- a.k.a. slotback -- or, by adding weight, a fullback. And if the offensive staff couldn't find a place for him, defensive coordinator Buddy Green was eager to cast Copeland in the secondary.
First, he had to report to the Naval Academy Prep School in Newport, R.I. His brief time there determined who would coach him in Annapolis.
"I was recruited as an A-back to NAPS," Copeland says. "But I was one of the bigger A-backs, so they moved me to B-back. I played fullback the whole time (there)."
Two years and more than a few pounds later, Copeland takes over the position full-time for the Mids. He represents the latest revolution in the evolution of the Navy fullback.
"We've made a transition to smaller B-backs, and Noah fits that mold," says Mike Judge, who coaches the position for the Mids and, therefore, wound up as the lucky one working most closely with Copeland. "We recruited him with the thought that he could develop into to a B-back, similar to the way we did with Alexander Teich."
A starter for all or parts of three seasons, Teich didn't adhere to not-so-long-ago days when the B in the Mids' backfield stood for bulk. He was a streamlined successor to Kyle Eckel, Eric Kettani and Adam Ballard, yet no less effective. Teich graduated last spring ninth among Navy's all-time leading rushers.
Before leaving, he did his part to help Copeland continue redefining the position.
"Last year I got a lot of help from Teich, but I still didn't really know what to do," Copeland acknowledges. "Now that I know what the offense is doing, what the A-backs, quarterbacks and receivers are doing, it kind of slows down the game for me. So I'll know where to fit, where the soft spots (in the defense) are. And even if they're not there, I'll still know where to go. It's a big difference."
"(Copeland's) a student of the game," Judge is pleased to say. "He really wants to learn the nuances of the offense. He had some great mentorship his first year from Alex."
Teich was a role model in another sense. Proving himself first as a plebe on special teams, before starting his sophomore season opener, his was much like Noah's career arc. The only difference being that while Teich emerged mainly by returning kicks, Copeland did it by covering them.
On the last of his seven tackles in 2011, in the finale against Army, he caused a turnover to help seal the Black Knights' fate. Seconds after the Mids took a 24-21 lead, Copeland charged downfield on the ensuing kickoff to force a fumble recovered by classmate Jordan Drake. The result was a Jon Teague field goal, and a 27-21 margin of victory.
In that blur of an instance in the biggest game of his young life, Copeland was anything but overwhelmed by circumstance. The ball ended up in someone else's arms. But Copeland showed he would be ready to run with it on some other Saturday.
That Saturday is now little more than a week away, when the Mids go global against Notre Dame in Dublin, Ireland. Copeland, whose only two carries netted four yards last year, will be the first of the triple options in the Navy offense.
"Special teams helped me with the speed of the game, how fast it is," Copeland says. "On kickoff return, you have to run down and block, and you have guys running at you full speed. It definitely helped with the speed of the game and actually knowing how (hard) I'd have to work and how hard it is to do something at the D-I level."
Of course, sprinting in a straight line isn't the same as the jagged movements of a back who must quickly recognize and cut through holes that disappear almost as soon as they develop. And hammering somebody else is one thing; being the one getting nailed is entirely another.
"It's a long season, and at that position, you've got to be a man to play fullback," says offensive coordinator Ivin Jasper. "(A defender) gets a free run on you every single play."
That's why Copeland labored in the offseason to build muscle -- he estimates his weight went from 195 to 215, at its heaviest, early in the summer. But durability will likely depend on the sensibilities of his coaching staff.
"We have to be smart and see if he can take that punishment, and be able to hold up for a whole season," Jasper said.
As for Copeland, he is undeterred.
"Our bread and butter is running up the middle, and you've got to be able to do that to be the fullback for Navy," he says. "I feel like I'm able to do that. Coach Judge believes in me, Coach Jasper, Coach Niumatalolo; they put me there, and I feel like I can run up the middle."
By his own admission, Copeland is "more of an outside runner." Jasper expects Navy to "able to do different things" with him in the backfield. And Judge loves his ability to make plays "in space."
But Judge makes an important distinction.
"Noah poses a huge threat on the perimeter, and catches the ball well," he says. "But that doesn't take away from what he can do inside. He runs hard between the tackles."
Coming out of spring practice as the presumptive starter, Copeland also wanted to run smart. So he applied himself to extra time studying video. And seeking to improve his footwork, he navigated various cone drills devised by his dad, a track coach back home in San Antonio.
"You can never be satisfied with what you do," Copeland shares. " You have to be your worst critic, and that's who I am to myself. I'll always try to improve on what I do the day before, and make up for my mistakes."
With that philosophy, a kid so few foresaw at Division I will soon be seen through an international scope; before a nationwide audience on CBS, and in more than 30 million European households on ESPN America.
"I don't really know why he was so far under the radar," Grantham says of the one-time prospect, before considering the player Copeland is today. "I'm really excited to see him showcase what he can do at this level. I didn't know it would happen so quickly."
Grantham, and his colleagues, are just glad it did.
"He's a great kid," Grantham says. "He comes from a great home."
"If we had a team full of guys like Noah," adds Judge. "We'd be really, really good."