As Quinton Coples rounded the corner into the Atlantic Health Jets Training Center locker room this afternoon, he shouted "Happy New Year!" to teammates, media members, and anyone else who would listen in his bubbly-as-usual demeanor.
If it seems like Coples has had an extra pep in his step in recent weeks, well, he has. But it hasn't all been puppies and rainbows this year.
The second-year linebacker out of UNC sustained the first serious injury of his life when he broke his ankle during preseason.
"It definitely took a toll on me," he said. "It was tough for me emotionally and physically, but in the NFL you're going to get hurt. It's about bouncing back."
And bounce back he did. Coples returned to the field earlier than expected after missing just two regular-season games, although he was far from healthy.
"It was just something I had to adjust to," he said. "I'm a competitor, so I don't make any excuses or anything. I just wanted to be out there to help my team as much as I could."
Game No. 9 vs. New Orleans, however, was the first game all season that "Q" didn't feel any soreness in the ankle. As you'll recall, it was that day that Coples made one of the Green & White's highlights of the season, tackling TE Josh Hill on an end-around for an 8-yard loss on 4th-and-1 in the fourth quarter of a one-possession game.
In addition to struggling through an injury, Coples also had to adapt to a new position, having been switched from defensive end to outside linebacker following his rookie year.
"I have different responsibilities, different guys I have to cover, different times I have to rush, more responsibilities overall," he said, "so it's a different adjustment for me. But no excuses or anything. I learned it, I understand what it is now, it came to me, and I'm looking forward to moving forward with that position and moving forward overall."
With injuries and learning curves now on the back burner, Coples has been on a roll these past several weeks. He enters Sunday's game at Miami on a four-game sack streak (including his half-sack performance last week), and he's recorded at least three tackles in each of his six games since our Week 10 bye.
Additionally he had 15 tackles and 5.0 tackles for loss/no gain through his first seven games, but in the last six games has 25 tackles and 6.5 tackles at or behind the line.
And set to square off against QB Ryan Tannehill and the Dolphins, there's no reason to believe he won't keep the sack attack coming. Tannehill's 58 sacks are the most by any quarterback since then-Lion Jon Kitna was brought down 63 times in 2006.
Of course, nothing's guaranteed. The Jets sacked Tannehill only once (by none other than Quinton Coples) in our Week 13 matchup at MetLife Stadium as he found ways to get the ball out of his hand quickly and pick apart our defense with underneath routes. He is, however, coming off of a game in which he was brought down seven times against a Buffalo Bills team that kept the Dolphins off the scoreboard.
No. 98 leads the Green & White with 46 quarterback hurries, he's third on the team with 4.5 sacks, and he's emerged as one of our most prolific defenders as his ankle healed and his new position became second nature. Still, head coach Rex Ryan believes the best is yet to come for the 23-year-old.
"He hasn't exceeded my expectations," Rex said this afternoon. "I think he's done a really good job. I just don't think he's where he's going to be, I really don't. He's playing hard and obviously he makes plays, but I have a funny feeling he's going to even get better."
"I definitely agree with him," Coples said. "I don't think I've reached my potential either. When you come into the NFL, some guys get it from the start, the system fits them well or whatever, but for other guys it might take a year or two to reach their maximum potential. At the end of the day, I think I definitely haven't reached my potential and I'm looking forward to doing that moving forward into this game and moving forward into next season."