SAN ANTONIO - Hargrave Military Academy has traditionally been a college preparatory program for post high school graduates who need an extra year to improve their academic numbers for college entrance. Then, head coach Robert Prunty took a high school senior by the name of Vidal Hazelton and his view on what kids to bring into his program changed.
Prunty is the head coach this week for the East team at the U.S. Army All-American Bowl in San Antonio, and one of the top performers in his practices has been one of his own players - defensive end Quinton Coples. Like Hazelton, Coples is a true high school senior, only the third to line up for Prunty over the years, and their success has prompted the way Prunty will recruit kids to his school in the future.
"It's normal for kids who don't qualify to come there and get qualified in one year or a semester," Prunty said, "but Quinton is such a great player, each year I am going to start taking some high school players; the best true seniors in the country."
Coples came to Hargrave via Kinston High School in North Carolina. At 6-foot-7 and 248 pounds, he is a coach's dream at the defensive end position, but he was raw and his academic resume was not up to par with what was needed to continue on to the college level. In Hargrave, he found his answer to both problems.
"Quinton wasn't one of those top names, but when I saw him I knew he would be because the potential level was so high for him. That's what made me so excited to pursue him and get him to come to Hargrave for his senior year. When you come to Hargrave and play on a postgraduate team, you get to play against Tennessee's JV, West Virginia's and Marshall's - he had no choice but to get better.
"From talking to him, of course he wanted to get qualified academically and we've got a great academic program, but also he wanted to grow football-wise. Hargrave offered him both. He is on the Dean's list, but you have to remember it's lights out at 10:00 and study hall from 7:30 to 9:30 every night. You don't have a choice but to come focused."
Now with his senior year behind him, Coples has parlayed the move to Hargrave into an invitation to the Army All-American game and he is certainly making the most of the opportunity. Unlike the other players on his squad, though, Coples is playing for his own head coach and that has both been a challenge and a motivation.
"We have been talking and he said I have big responsibilities as far as representing the school," said Coples. "So I just go out, play hard and make sure I do everything right. He just told me to take charge, even though the guys don't know me like that. I've got to let them know that I am capable of being a leader on this team.
But according to Prunty, Coples may just do most of his talking on the field.
"Quinton is kind of a laid-back guy and not a rah-rah type. He plays hard though," Prunty said. "I said before we came out here and not because he's my guy, but I think he will be the sleeper out of the group this year."
Calling Coples a sleeper is a bit of a stretch. Rivals.com rates him four stars and ranks him as the No. 8 player in the state of Virginia. But on a stage like the Army Bowl, where five-star prospects are everywhere and four-star prospects are the norm, the way Coples has stood out among his peers in early practices warrants him a strong consideration as the most surprising player this week.
"A lot of people don't know me because I wasn't fortunate enough to go out to all these camps and that kind of stuff, but I just go out there and play hard and do my thing," said Coples. "I know how to get the man off of me, I know how to rip, I know how to swim, I know how to do all those things and they have to find a way to defend me."
Coples' name may not be as nationally recognizable as fellow teammates like Terrelle Pryor or Patrick Johnson, but his game has looked on par with those players this week and that does not surprise Prunty one bit.
"You talk about a guy who is 6-foot-7 and runs a 4.6 40, the only young man I can compare him to is Julius Peppers," said Prunty. "He reminds me a lot of Julius Peppers when he was in high school - just raw and athletic."
The Army game could be a coming out party for Coples on the national stage, but even being part of the practices this week has improved his skills and technique. All week long he has gone head-to-head with Dublin (Ohio) Coffman star offensive tackle Mike Adams and that work, according to Prunty, is having enormous benefits on Coples progression as a player.
Where Coples is separated from the traditional sleeper prospects is in the fact that he has been heavily sought after since early in the process by several major Division I programs and holds offers from dozens of universities. His top four schools are NC State, Florida State, North Carolina and Texas and a decision will not come until Signing Day next month.
"I haven't taken all of my visits yet, so that's why I haven't committed," Coples said. "The visits are really going to do a lot to help my decision. I will be well prepared on Signing Day."
Florida State has already hosted Coples for an official visit and he will take his second trip of the process to North Carolina the weekend after he returns from San Antonio. A visit to N.C. State has been set up for the weekend of Jan. 18 and he will finish his official visit tour with a stop at Tennessee on Feb. 1.
While he has the scholarship offers and the four stars, Coples still considers himself a sleeper and therefore wants to prove he belongs with the best in the country this week. He expects the fans watching the Army game Saturday to see "a country boy who goes hard makes plays and is all about business." Prunty expects that this game will be a foreshadowing of great things to come for his star defensive end.
"I think if he can keep the good Lord first, continue to work hard, listen to his coaches at whatever school he chooses and just stay humble, the sky's the limit," Prunty said. "I think he could be like another one of the kid's from Hargrave, Charles Grant who went on to the Saints. He could be another one of those great d-ends coming out of Hargrave."