MOBILE, Ala. — As a tall, athletic defensive end from North Carolina, the comparisons to Julius Peppers were unavoidable for Quinton Coples.
Actually, Coples could have avoided this comparison: the tendency to go less than 100 percent every snap.
But where critics claimed Peppers would take plays off when he was with the Carolina Panthers, Coples has been blasted for taking the first three-quarters of the season off during his final year with the Tar Heels.
Coples, a 6-foot-6, 280-pound native of Kinston, began last season as the top-rated senior prospect and a projected top-5 pick. But after a slow start that raised questions about his drive, Coples' draft stock slipped.
Coples had 2.5 sacks in the Tar Heels' first eight games against FBS schools, then had three in the final two regular-season games against Virginia Tech and Duke.
While some top seniors, such as Penn State defensive tackle Devon Still, skip the Senior Bowl for fear it will hurt their prospects, Coples had no choice but to come to Mobile.
Tony Pauline, draft expert for SI.com, said UNC coaches have been telling scouts Coples played cautiously his senior season to avoid getting hurt - a charge Coples denies. Coples said his production fell off initially because of his move to the right side, where he faced better offensive tackles, many of whom had help blocking Coples.
"I was in a situation most people wouldn't understand. I experienced double teams, triple teams, like I've never experienced before in my career," Coples said. "It was a big adjustment. I learned a lot and it helped me mature and become more of a professional as a man on and off the field."
Coples has had a good week at the Senior Bowl practices, beating blockers during 1-on-1 drills and looking like the kind of impact pass-rusher that draws big contracts in the quarterback-centric NFL. Peppers received a $90 million deal from Chicago as a free agent after the 2009 season. During his last fall in Charlotte, Peppers returned to Chapel Hill for the Florida State game and met Coples on the sideline at Kenan Stadium.
Coples said he respects Peppers as a player and person, but wants to establish his own identity. Pauline said he must first convince scouts he has the will.
"He looks the part. Occasionally he plays to it," Pauline said. "He shows some Julius Peppers in his game at times. But the problem is he did it for two games this year. The first three-quarters of the season he took off."
ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper ranks Coples as the top defensive end and projected him to go seventh in his first mock draft - just ahead of the Panthers, who could have an interest in bringing in a pass-rushing end to line up opposite Charles Johnson.
"That would be unbelievable," Coples said. "Playing in my home state."
One of Coples' college rivals believes Coples will be a big addition for whichever team drafts him.
"He's a very explosive player. He's got a lot of talent," said former Wisconsin quarterback Russell Wilson, who played his first three seasons at N.C. State.
"He's a great kid, first of all. And you definitely see it on the field. Me and him are buddies. Whenever I see him, we joke around a little bit. ... I've seen a lot of great players, and he's definitely one of them."
Then after praising Coples, Wilson couldn't resist taking a shot at him.
"It was exciting to play against him," Wilson said. "The good thing is we beat 'em three times."
Coples' stop-and-start senior season has not prompted him to re-adjust his goals. Never mind the defensive ends; Coples said he's competing with quarterbacks, running backs and receivers for one of the top picks in the draft.
"My goal is to be the best defensive lineman that ever came through at the size of 280 and 6-6," he said.
There's another one from Coples' old school who can make a pretty strong argument. But Coples is ready to be his own man.