football

The little left tackle that could

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Consider the top offensive tackles in Maryland high school football. They all have pretty much the same traits: tall, burly, powerful, intimidating, hellacious run blockers with a penchant for embarrassing opposing defensive ends.
Joe Kopp, a junior from Arundel, has none of those qualities. Yet he has become one of the area's most accomplished linemen. Last year he even earned All-County honors.
How'd he do it? Let's count the ways:
1) Kopp compensates
A 300-pound mammoth Joe Kopp is not. He's 6-feet-4 and 245 pounds -- after a few quarter-pounders with cheese.
"He is definitely lean," said Arundel coach Chuck Markewicz. "Last year he came into camp weighing 215 pounds.
"But I'm sure he'll gain 25 pounds his freshman year of college," Markewicz continued. "He has the frame to be about 285. And he'll probably grow another two inches, too."
But before he heads to college, Kopp has to deal with bigger, stronger defensive linemen. He holds his own with nimble footwork, staying low on blocks, a keen attention to detail and just plain hard work.
"I have to train more than some other guys," Kopp said. "One thing I do is really concentrate on core strength, which helps me get leverage."
"Joe's a technician," Markewicz said. "Sometimes you get these big tackles in high school and they're only good because they're strong and can move people around. But Joe pays attention to his technique because he knows at 245 he isn't that big."
2) He knows more
Kopp will spend hours watching film, searching for weaknesses in an opposing lineman's game. If a defensive end has a "tell" - i.e. he leans too far forward on a blitz or clenches his fists when he's going to rush - Kopp will decipher it like Sherlock Holmes.
On top of that, he has a firm grasp of Arundel's somewhat-complicated zone blocking schemes, which rely more on precise movement than pure power.
"One of our strengths last year was our offensive line," Markewicz said. "With Joe in there, there were very few missed assignments. He's very meticulous, very smart… and he demands that from the other guys."
3) Kopp excels at pass blocking
Wait, that can't be right. Maryland high school football is predicated on running the football. Every lineman in this state must be an ace at clearing paths for 'backs.
Not at Arundel. For the last two years the Wildcats had record-breaking gunslinger Billy Cosh (Kansas State) under center. Which meant they threw as much as Texas Tech.
Kopp spent so much time protecting the quarterback he could practically write a pass-blocking bible. In fact, it's a point of pride for him. Kopp even called pass blocking his "defining feature."
But he understands not every lineman can learn how to do it well.
"It's difficult for some people because you have to step back instead of just going right at the defender," Kopp said. "And when the defensive end rushes, you have to make sure your hand is under their hip so you can push them around the quarterback, which is all about timing, not power. If they beat you outside or your hands aren't in the right place, then you're done."
Most coaches and players agree that pass blocking is more difficult to master than run blocking. Not only is run blocking more common in high school, but it's also less complicated.
"When you pass block you have to be patient," Markewicz said. "That's difficult to teach when you don't pass a lot; it's hard to teach a big, aggressive kid to be patient. But Joe understands what to do. He was responsible for protecting Billy's backside, and he hasn't given up more than three sacks in two years as a starter."
4) Kopp needs to improve his run blocking.
Once again, this flies in the face of conventional Maryland football wisdom. Kopp isn't a subpar run blocker per se, but he admits he needs some refining. After all, he hasn't practiced it much in his two years on varsity. But with Cosh off to Kansas State, Arundel will be handing off more often.
"I've been training to get better because we will be running a little more," Kopp said. "I think I've improved since sophomore year. I used to be no good at all."
Ironically, one of Kopp's most memorable moments last year came on a run block. He was going up against Meade defensive end Mawanza Wamalumba, who is committed to Miami (Ohio). On a zone-right run, Kopp used his leverage and surprising power to get underneath Wamalumba's pads. Kopp pushed so hard Wamalumba fell flat on his back.
"He actually almost beat me to the inside, but I was able to lift him off the ground and pancake him," Kopp said. "That's probably the highlight of my career."
5) Kopp is athletic
In order to pass block, a tackle must be able to play well out in space. They must be able to move north and south on three-step quarterback drops and east and west on designed roll-outs (and pitch plays). Kopp excels at moving up and down the line in both directions.
But he can flat out run, too.
It's a safe bet that most left tackles can't run a 40-yard dash in five seconds or less. Not only can Kopp break a 5.0, but he could probably be a receiver if Markewicz moved him to the slot.
"He moves really well for a guy his size, so that's probably why he fancies himself as a tight end," Markewicz said. "But if you think you're a tight end on our team, then you're a tackle."
OK, so these last two points have nothing to do with Kopp's on-field excellence. But they do show just how extraordinary and different he is.
6) Joe Kopp spends his vacations on religious missions.
In a society where we're amazed at Tim Tebow's selflessness and where "devoted Christian" has become an oxymoron, Kopp is practically an old-school Bible-belter.
Kopp, a non-denominational Christian, attends two church services every Sunday, meets with his youth group every Wednesday and even goes on missions to poor and desolate parts of the United States. Last summer he went to New Orleans to help rebuild an area still reeling from Hurricane Katrina.
"It's something I feel strongly about," Kopp said. "It's our duty to help others."
7) Kopp has no delusions of grandeur.
The most common response from high school football players regarding their future aspirations? "I want to go D-I." Or, at the very least: "I want to play college football."
Kopp most definitely wants to play college football, but he's also a realist. He's not counting on football as a way to support himself.
Despite what his coaches say, he knows not many upper-level universities takes fliers on undersized, underweight left tackles. So Kopp has laid out a contingency plan.
"I've been talking to the Coast Guard Academy, which has a Division III football program," Kopp said. "I like the academics there and I'm interested in a military career. And I talked to the football coach and he seemed really interested in me playing for him. It feels like a good fit academically and football-wise, too."
You can't help but root for a guy like Joe Kopp. He's Rudy at Notre Dame; he's the U.S. hockey team in Lake Placid; he's the little left tackle that could.
He's also the best player on the field on Friday nights.
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