LOS ANGELES -- It’s been less than three weeks since USC wrapped up spring ball, but there the Trojans were this past Monday and Wednesday, a large collection of players tossing the ball around on Brian Kennedy-Howard Jones Field. It was the usual suspects making the majority of the big plays during the volunteer passing sessions -- guys such as Cody Kessler, Max Wittek and Nelson Agholor. But there was one more slightly under-the-radar player who stood out too, just as he quietly did throughout the spring -- tight end Jalen Cope-Fitzpatrick.
“It’s great to get back to work,” Cope-Fitzpatrick said. “Any time you get to play football, it’s always a blessing, especially with the weather that we’ve been having. We’re just having fun putting in work as a team.”
Showcasing soft hands and looking quick and fluid in running his routes, the 6-foot-5 sophomore with two career catches under his belt has taken his game to another level over the course of the last two months, emerging as a more-than-capable option at a position that certainly could use his services this fall. After all, while Xavier Grimble and Randall Telfer make up what is arguably one of the top tight end duos in all of college football -- the Trojans currently only three scholarship players at the position with Junior Pomee's status unclear. In terms of depth, that’s a dangerously low number, as USC head coach Lane Kiffin found out the hard way this past spring.
Grimble first went down with a chest fracture midway through the spring. Then in the final week of workouts, Telfer was forced to the sideline with a torn meniscus in his knee. Fortunately for Kiffin and Co., Cope-Fitzpatrick was waiting in the wings and ready for a chance to make a statement. And that’s precisely what the Rocklin (Calif.) Whitney product did, particularly in the spring game when, as the only true tight end available, he came through with a big six-catch performance.
And while that outing undoubtedly served as a major confidence booster for Cope-Fitzpatrick, it’s the increased workload that he shouldered throughout the March and April practices that has proven to be even more valuable.
“The game is starting to slow down, and I’m starting to feel a lot more confident in my game,” Cope-Fitzpatrick said. “Instead of pressing like I might have before, I’m starting to use my natural abilities. It was just about getting reps in -- and not even so much the physical reps, but it was more about the mental reps. I spent a lot of time in the classroom really breaking down what I needed to work on.”
And it’s not just on the mental side of the game where he’s shown vast improvement. Currently at 248 pounds, Cope-Fitzpatrick -- who is as proud of his blocking skills as he is of his abilities as a pass-catcher -- has also gone through a physical transformation, appearing bigger, stronger and more agile than when he first arrived on campus.
“My body is starting to develop,” Cope-Fitzpatrick said. “I’m getting older, and I’ve spent a lot of time in the training room stretching and doing a lot of soft tissue stuff, and I’m really starting to notice a difference, especially when it comes to my flexibility. My muscle mass has definitely increased. From the time when I came into USC to now, there’s a 12-pound difference, but I still feel like the same percentage as when I came in. I’ve been making a lot of great strides in the weight room.”
Another significant contributing factor in Cope-Fitzpatrick’s progression on the field has been the influence of Grimble and Telfer, who have eagerly taken him under their wings.
“They’ve been great,” Cope-Fitzpatrick said of the tandem, both entering their redshirt junior seasons. “They’ve played here for awhile now, and they have a lot of experience within the system. I’ve learned a lot just through their experiences and from talking to them. And just having that relationship with them, they’re really like two bigger brothers.”
Having now proven himself to a certain degree, and with so much working in his favor, Cope-Fitzpatrick looks ready to join Grimble and Telfer as a key component of the tight end rotation in 2013. But with just about three months to go before the start of fall camp, there’s still time to get even better.
“I feel like I can make a big push to become a significant part of the offense,” Cope-Fitzpatrick said. “I always feel like I need to do the work of a starter, even though I’m not starting yet, just so I can always be put in the rotation. But I’m definitely looking forward to having a greater role and a greater impact for the team this year. I just want to work hard, and I believe that everything will come.”