Quinton Coples is ready to be great

CORTLAND, N.Y. - Quinton Coples finally knows what he is.

He's confident in his ability and his defined role within the Jets' defense. But it's taken the former first-round pick two seasons -- and 20 fewer pounds -- to get to this point. And he admits his NFL learning curve was a bit steeper than others'.

Coples, the 16th overall pick in 2012, registered 51/2 sacks as a defensive end his rookie season. But when he arrived for camp his second year, he learned his new role would be as a rushing outside linebacker.

"Oh yeah, I was put in a tough position," he told Newsday as he strolled from the practice field to the locker room Thursday afternoon.

"I wasn't told until I got here," he said. "I'd been working D-line and stuff like that [in the offseason], but then when you get here, it's like, oh, then you've got to cover receivers; oh, then you've got to cover running backs; you've got to do this, do that. You've got to drop in zone coverage, you've got to do all this and that.

"So it was just like . . . ," he said before letting out a small sigh. "It was just a bunch of blurred lines. But I got it, I got it. It's cool. I understand it now . . . So this year, I'm prepared for whatever they throw at me. I understand the defensive scheme, I understand what they're asking of me and I'm ready to attack."

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Coples was in the early stages of his transition to outside linebacker when he suffered a hairline fracture in his right ankle in the second preseason game against the Jaguars. Though he missed the first two games of the 2013 regular season because of the injury, he showed flashes and finished with 41/2 sacks, three of which came in three straight games.

Coples transformed his 6-6 frame in the offseason, arriving at camp 20 pounds lighter. And now that his strict diet has him down to 270, the Jets expect him to be a consistent playmaker.

"He looks phenomenal," coach Rex Ryan said after his Friday media conference. "He's in great shape, which I think is the first thing that jumps out at you. He's changed his body, but he's still strong. I think he's a little more sudden having that weight off. He's doing a better job and he's getting off the football.

"I think he understands what we're putting him in, coverages, all that type of stuff. He's much further along than he was last year."

But don't let Coples' throaty Southern drawl and carefree demeanor fool you, Ryan said. Contrary to the criticisms of Coples' work ethic and motor before the 2012 draft, the former North Carolina stud is anything but lazy.

"The kid cares," Ryan said. "He's more of a laid-back guy, but when that ball's snapped, I'll tell ya, the kid's made some great plays for us in the short time he's been here. And he's one of the guys you have to be mindful of. He's a talent. There is no question. There's a reason we took him where we took him.

"I'll never forget [Muhammad Wilkerson] telling me, 'He's a much better athlete than me,' and I was like, 'Wow. Did you just say that?' And now we've got those two guys."

Defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson noted that "this is not a one-man defense" but acknowledged that expectations are higher for Coples this season.

"Yeah, eyes may be on him because this is the third year of his contract, so yeah, man, you want to play harder just to get your payout," Richardson said. "I tell him that all the time: He's got to come in and get his money."

But Coples isn't focused on a big payday. He's fixated on building a legacy.

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"I ain't doing it for the big check. The big check is the motivation," he said. "I don't want to just be a player. You know what I'm saying? It's not so much about the money -- although you've got to be rewarded for how you play. But at the end of the day, it's about what you leave behind, how you affect other kids."

So what will people say about Quinton Coples after he's done playing?

"He was a great player," the outside linebacker said with a smile. "Even if you don't get a gold jacket, but you were mentioned with one of the greats -- that's what I think everybody plays this game for. You want to be mentioned as one of the greats.

" 'He was a great pass rusher, he was a great linebacker, he was a great something.' "

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