FLORENCE, Ala. — Six games into his freshman season in 2017, Cole Copeland found his way into the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga lineup as the starting quarterback due to injuries to Alejandro Bennifield and Nick Tiano.
The offense had been pretty lethargic to that point, failing to reach 100 rushing yards in four of the first five games and finishing shy of 200 total yards twice, and it's not as though the Mocs suddenly became explosive on offense or started winning all the time with Copeland. He passed for 1,177 yards and 11 interceptions to just seven touchdowns, and UTC went 2-4 in his starts to finish the season 3-8 overall and 3-5 in the Southern Conference.
But he galvanized and energized the team, which went 2-2 in the final four games: a six-point loss to The Citadel, a win at No. 8 Samford, a win against rival East Tennessee State and a near upset of No. 8 Wofford in double overtime.
Could history be repeating itself?
Copeland started in UTC's 20-0 victory Saturday night at North Alabama. There was never a clear-cut answer at quarterback for the Mocs entering the season, and that competition will likely continue, but the offense had stalled in the season opener nine days earlier, totaling 231 yards in a 30-20 loss to Austin Peay at Finley Stadium.
It wasn't a ton better against the Lions, but Ailym Ford and Tyrell Price combined for 179 rushing yards, with Ford running for a touchdown, and the UTC defense was so dominant — North Alabama had 90 yards of total offense — that Copeland just had to be serviceable, which he ultimately was.
"I've always been a fan of Cole," offensive lineman Cole Strange, who started five games for that 2017 team, said earlier in the week. "It's kind of hard to put your finger on exactly what it is, but whenever he came in that year, there was a shift. There was a shift in practice because we would hardly ever move the ball on our defense in practice, and whenever he came in, we started moving the ball."
Added senior safety Brandon Dowdell, who had his third interception of the season Saturday: "Cole is a cool, competitive guy. He comes in with his competitive spirit and with his hard-work mentality, and he just does what the coaches want him to do. He has this mentality and his accountability to his players that we're going to go get this win, we're going to go get this first down. You just have to have a player that cares and has that type of energy."
Of course, Copeland might have been a fifth-year senior starter at this point.
A former Bradley Central standout, he made the SoCon All-Freshman team in 2017 and showed potential to be one of the more prolific quarterbacks in UTC history. But he had to redshirt in 2018 for academic reasons, and then he was out of school before returning to UTC in spring 2020 and playing in two games in the 2020-21 season that lasted just five games due to the coronavirus pandemic.
And on Saturday, he was far from perfect. He completed fewer than half of his passes for just 98 yards while throwing two first-half interceptions, with UTC coach Rusty Wright blaming the first on a wrong route but calling the second "a bad throw." But as Copeland settled in, he started using mobility to make plays, including a pair of scrambles for yardage and another time when he felt pressure and spun around in the pocket before finding Reginald Henderson for a 16-yard gain.
Having the confidence of his teammates is great, but for the Mocs to reach their ultimate goals, he'll have to be better. Still, Saturday's game was his third win in his past five starts and served as a reminder that regardless of Copeland's statistics, he's been able to find ways to be effective and do his part for team success.
"I just try to be the best leader I can be," he said. "Obviously, we've got dudes like Harrison (Moon), Chris (James), Cole Strange as well that have been doing it for a long time, so that helps me out a lot. It kind of keeps me cool, especially when you have a running game like that. It's easy to keep your composure because (the defense is) loading the box and it's one-on-ones outside, but I've got to be better and make more plays for our team, because obviously 13 points offensively is not enough."