Considering the rare blend of size, power and speed that Quenton Coples demonstrated in 2010 while at defensive tackle, many assumed that the North Carolina Tar Heel would be able to duplicate -- or even improve -- as a senior when allowed to move back outside to his more "natural" defensive end position.
So far, it hasn't happened and that fact is leading some NFL teams to switch their projection from defensive end back to defensive tackle.
"Look, I'm not saying he can't play outside," one high-ranking team official told me recently. "But he isn't a quick-twitch pass rusher and why would you invest that type of draft pick into a left defensive end? You wouldn't. Many 4-3 teams are going to eventually move him inside to defensive tackle. He can give you a pass rush there and is so big and strong, he'll be fine against the run."
Coples certainly is big and strong. Rated by some scouts as the elite senior talent in the entire country heading into this season, the 6-5, 278 pound All-ACC pick is viewed as a prospect who could get even bigger in the pros.
"He's got a long, lean, naturally powerful frame. He could add another 10-15 pounds without a significant loss in speed," said a scout representing another 4-3 team also speaking on the condition of anonymity.
Coples, a defensive end before moving inside last year to help a Tar Heels squad reeling from suspensions and injuries, enjoyed a breakout junior season in which he racked up 59 tackles, 15.5 tackles for loss and 10 sacks. So far this season, he's struggled to make plays from the outside. He generally has played at left defensive end (against the right tackle), but was switched back and forth between left and right defensive end in this past weekend's game versus Virginia. The results weren't statistically impressive. Coples registered just three tackles against the Cavaliers, two of which were assists. He did also register three QB pressures.
Over the first three games of the season, Coples has posted six total tackles (four solos). He has two tackles for loss (both sacks) on the year, though they both came against James Madison in a 42-10 season-opening rout at home.
I touched upon Coples' recent struggles in my Big Board, where the North Carolina defender has slowly -- but steadily -- dropped from No. 2 in my rankings of potential 2012 draft prospects to his current No. 5. Coples is currently NFLDraftScout.com's No. 2 rated overall prospect for the 2012 draft. He's rated behind only Stanford quarterback Andrew Luck.
I see some similarities in Coples' game to that of another former ACC star who has gone on to enjoy significant success in the NFL -- Arizona Cardinals' defensive end Darnell Dockett (who played his collegiate ball at Florida State). Though he projects nicely inside for a four-man front, like the 6-4, 290 pound Dockett, Coples could be also be a star as a defensive end in a 3-4 scheme.
Fewer and fewer, however, believe he'll be able to make as significant of an impact playing outside in the 4-3 against NFL speed.