The redshirt junior walk-on from Andalusia moved to first team at center in Sunday's practice and will try to hold off a challenge from his friend, senior Steven Ross, who has had tough luck on the injury front.
After going down late last season with a major knee injury that required surgery, Ross missed all of spring training. After diligently rehabbing the problem and returning to practice in August where he re-claimed the No. 1 spot on the depth chart, Ross was sidelined again. This time the problem was much less serious. However, the hip flexor injury caused Ross to miss valuable practice time and gave Cope more work with the first team offense.
Center Joe Cope (50) reads the defense before snapping the football to Brandon Cox in Saturday's scrimmage.
Position coach Hugh Nall made the call over the weekend to elevate Cope to first team after the graded 97 percent in Saturday's scrimmage. Nall says he likes the work ethic, attention to detail and knowledge of the game that Cope brings to the position.
Cope joined the team as a little known walk-on out of Andalusia High. He was a four-year starter there as both an offensive and defensive lineman. However, no major colleges offered scholarships because of his size and he had no interest in playing for lower level programs.
When he graduated from high school, he made the decision to head north to Auburn and give big-time college football a try. After arriving in 2002, he is finally getting a major opportunity to show what he can do.
"Walking on is definitely hard," Cope tells Inside the Auburn Tigers. "It is a long road. If you can hold on usually good things will happen. People like Jeremy Ingle and even a guy like Andrew Letts who just finished up playing were successful. A lot of walk-ons have made it, but it was a long journey for a lot of them."
Although Cope arrived as a very under-sized offensive lineman at 250 pounds, Nall noticed that he was a hard-working player who was making steady progress. By spring of 2004, the line coach had decided that Cope was probably going to be good enough to see some game action down the road. That happened in a reserve role as a third stringer in 2004. He traveled with the team, saw action in three games and earned a letter.
Cope, who weighed in at 277 pounds for Sunday's practice, counts on his quickness, technique and tenacity to get the job done. Long before he earned first team status, he had earned the respect of his teammates with a strong work ethic and a desire to help the football team.
For Nall and offensive coordinator Al Borges, it is essential that the center is able to quickly and accurately read the defensive fronts so he can call out blocking assignments to the guards and tackles. That skill helped enable former walk-on Jeremy Ingle to succeed as the 2004 Auburn center even though he was undersized for the position, too.
"I am seeing the defense better than ever," Cope says. "Just walking up there, it is second nature now. With four years in the system that happens."
Cope and Ingle are good friends and talk on the phone often. "The best thing Ingle has told me is probably like, ‘Just keep working hard. Don't let anything get you down. There a lot of things that can happen out there. It is a long journey.' Even when he was here, he told me that."
Joe Cope (50) says he will count on big and physical guards such as Tim Duckworth (right) and Ben Grubbs to help him get the job done in the middle of the line.
Cope also notes that he has lots of good friends on the football team and says he feels like they are part of a fraternity. He notes that he and Ross are close and he expects his friend to battle back and challenge for the starting spot. "The fight is not over yet. Steven is coming off an injury. He is still going to fight for it."
The redshirt junior says he liked Auburn football growing up and that is one of the reasons he decided to walk on at AU. An economics major who posted a 3.0 grade point average for his summer term, Cope was a novice as a center when he arrived for college.
"I played it two days in practice in high school when our center got hurt," he remembers. "That let me know that I would be able to play center up here. After that I worked with my high school quarterback all summer before I got up here. Then I spent a season on the scout team at Auburn and that helped a lot."