Catching a break
Former QBs Copeland, Wilson making splash at WR
Posted: Saturday January 02, 1999 06:14 PM
By B.J. Schecter, Sports Illustrated
TEMPE, Ariz. -- When they first came to Tennessee, Jeremaine Copeland and Cedrick Wilson had visions of following in the footsteps of Peyton Manning, throwing touchdown passes in the checkered end zones of Neyland Stadium. They were both prolific high school quarterbacks in Tennessee, and like most young football players in the state, dreamed of the day when 106,000 fans would cheer for them on every snap.
It didn't work out exactly as planned, but Copeland and Wilson are living a dream. Not many get the chance to be the quarterback at Tennessee and even fewer get to play for a national championship as Manning can attest. Neither Copeland nor Wilson will take a snap from under center in Monday night's Fiesta Bowl against Florida State, but there will be three quarterbacks on the field for the Vols that night. Two of them, however, will line up as wideouts.
Of course, junior Tee Martin is Tennessee's undisputed starter, and has improved every game after spending two years as Manning's understudy. But if it hadn't been for Copeland, Martin may not have been the Vols' leader this season.
Copeland, an all-state quarterback at Harriman (Tenn.) High, was Manning's backup in 1995 and astutely concluded he better find another position if he wanted to be known for something other than holding a clipboard.
"Peyton and I were pretty close and he encouraged me to be a wide receiver," says Copeland, a 6-foot-2, 200-pound senior. "I wanted to play and if catching balls was what I needed to do than that's what I would do. It really wasn't a tough adjustment for me because if you are a quarterback then you know the whole offense. I knew all of the routes and just had to work on my timing. But I already had a good relationship with Peyton and he helped make the transition a lot easier."
After catching a meager 16 passes in 1996, Copeland hauled in 58 for 732 yards and nine touchdowns last season. He still has a vivid memory of his first touchdown as a receiver. "It was in our first game against UNLV," he says. "It was a slant over the middle and Peyton hummed it in there. It took it in and I was so overwhelmed I didn't know how to celebrate."
This season, Copeland has teamed up with Wilson and Peerless Price to form one of the best receiving corps in the nation. Price has been the Vols go-to receiver, and although Copeland's numbers are down from a year ago (29 catches, 438 yards, 1 TD), he's still dangerous whenever he touches the ball. That's why he also returns punts.
Wilson's story mirrors Copeland's in many ways. During his star-studded career at Memphis' Melrose High, Wilson threw for 6,588 yards and 104 touchdowns, but never expected to play quarterback.
"When they recruited me, Tennessee coaches told me they my best chance to play was at receiver," he says. "So I took them up on it."
It turned out to be a wise decision: This season Wilson caught 33 passes for 558 yards and six touchdowns.
Having two other quarterbacks on the field has helped Martin immensely in his first season as a starter. Copeland and Wilson know how to read defenses and adjust their routes accordingly. They also aren't shy to offer friendly advice.
"During the summer we weren't happy with the throws Tee was making so we let him know about it," says Wilson. "I told Tee if he didn't shape up I'd have to play quarterback."
Says Martin, "Yeah, they all think they can play. Seriously through, they make my job a lot easier. A lot of receivers complain when they don't get the ball, but Cedrick and Jeremaine see it from my point of view. If I ever get confused all I have to do is turn to Jeremaine. He's the smartest; he knows more about this offense than me."
Sports Illustrated writer-reporter B.J. Schecter will file daily reports from the Fiesta Bowl for CNNSI.com.
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