By Seth Boster, The Baltimore Sun
2:26 PM EDT, August 5, 2013
Brandon Copeland knows he can't be his grandfather.
If the 2009 Gilman graduate is to claim a spot as an undrafted rookie free agent on the Ravens' final 53-man roster at the end of the preseason, it can't be in the way Roy Hilton joined the Baltimore Colts as a defensive end in 1965.
At least, not exactly.
"Now I'm at a totally different position," Copeland said recently after practice at the Under Armour Performance Center, where the former Penn defensive end is trying out as a middle linebacker.
"He can't really give me tips on how to play middle linebacker," he said of his grandfather. "But he can give me more tips on how to be the underdog."
Hilton, 70, was one of three rookies to make the Colts' roster after being drafted in the 15th round as a 6-foot-6, 218-pounder out of Jackson State. The Colts had lost the NFL championship game to the Cleveland Browns, 27-0, the year before.
"Somebody said, 'Well, when we play Cleveland this year, Jim Brown will just run over a 218-pound defensive end,' " Hilton said. "And I said, 'Well, that's not true.' I didn't really think anybody could run over me."
Hilton went on to play 11 seasons in the NFL. With the Colts, he appeared in Super Bowl III and in Super Bowl V, in which he recorded two sacks and a hit on the quarterback that led to an interception and later a 16-13 win.
His unlikely success, he said, came through his mastery of the fundamentals by which he always urged his growing grandson to abide. The most important thing, he told Copeland, was in timing; exploding outward just as the snap went backward.
As for the oncoming blocker: "You get your hands on him and you control him," Hilton said. "Doesn't matter what he weighs or how big he is. It's what you do. What you allow him to do."
After practice last week, Copeland, a 22-year-old Sykesville native, was unstrapping his shoulder pads, wearing a wristband he designed and ordered with the word "AMBITION" in bold letters on it.
"I have a Ravens jersey on with my name on it, and that's great, that's been my dream since I was a little kid," he said. "But it's definitely not close to being official."
The 6-foot-3, 260-pound Copeland is vying for a place on a linebacker unit that lost two starters from last season (Ray Lewis and Dannell Ellerbe). Jameel McClain continues his recovery from a spinal cord injury last year, while free-agent acquisition Daryl Smith, second-round pick Arthur Brown and third-year player Josh Bynes look to compete for playing time. Copeland was listed as the fifth inside linebacker in the first depth chart the team released in camp.
"He's done a really good job, moving to inside linebacker, which is not a position he's played, but he's picked it up very quickly," coach John Harbaugh said. "He's a big, physical presence. He's smart, he's tough, just like you'd expect from a Gilman guy. He's working his way into having an opportunity to play pro football."
Copeland made 39 straight starts and finished as a three-time Ivy League champion and first-team all-conference selection at Penn.
"In my lifetime at Penn, which has been a quarter of a century, he's probably been one of the greatest impacts we've had," said Ray Priore, the team's defensive coordinator with 27 years coaching at the school.
Looking ahead to his chances in the pros as a linebacker, Priore said Copeland sought his guidance to learn the position in the spring.
"It's just his character as a human being," Priore said. "If he wants something, he works endlessly to accomplish that goal."
Since joining the Ravens in May, Copeland's days have ended in bed with a playbook, he said.
"Now you're the quarterback of the defense," he said. "It's been a hard transition in terms of [learning] coverages, but I'm picking it up. I'm getting better every single day."
In many ways, he still looks to his grandfather, a presence throughout his football life and an underdog who found a way.
"I always had a bunch of weird sayings," Hilton said. "Like, 'It's not the size of the dog in the fight, but the fight in the dog.'"
Hilton said he goes to every game at M&T Bank Stadium. He wonders what it would be like to look down and see his grandson on the field.
"I know nobody's gonna hand him anything, but I think he can make the club," he said.
For that to happen, Copeland considers every day as a high-stakes contest.
"I'm not a senior at Penn any more. I'm not the star of the team," he said. "My spot's not guaranteed. I can't go out and have a bad day."
Earlier, he was out on the field for team scrimmages, underneath the cameras perched on the surrounding high-rising hydraulic lifts. Though in a less familiar role, he was still firing with the snap. Still extending his arms. Hands at the ready for any blocker trying to stop him.
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