Spartans cornerback Copeland is healthy, ready to fly

Tony Paul
The Detroit News
Vayante Copeland

East Lansing — In 2013, Michigan State’s superb defense was famously led by the “No-Fly Zone,” specifically star cornerbacks Trae Waynes and Darqueze Dennard.

Both went on to become first-round NFL draft picks, Dennard in 2014 and Waynes in 2015.

“They were GOATs, man,” said sophomore cornerback Vayante Copeland, using the popular acronym for Greatest of All-Time.

“We’re trying to make our own legacy. You don’t want to live off anyone’s legacy. At the same time, they set the standard.”

Entering 2016, there are high hopes Michigan State has its “No-Fly Zone 2.0,” though any nickname will be more original than that.

“We’ll come up with something,” senior defensive back Demetrious Cox said. “Me and Montae (Nicholson) were supposed to come up with something.”

While Cox and Nicholson, a junior safety, might come up with the nickname, Copeland figures to have plenty of say in whether the group lives up to the billing.

He’s back and completely healthy after suffering a fracture in his neck in the second game of the 2015 season, a 31-28 victory over Oregon.

That injury followed an impressive opening-game performance against Western Michigan, when he recorded the first interception of his career, in his first career game. Copeland missed the rest of the season, having to watch as the Spartans stormed to a Big Ten championship and a spot in the College Football Playoff.

“It was tough,” Copeland said during Michigan State’s annual media-day gathering. “At the same time, there really wasn’t anything I could do about it.”

One thing he didn’t do was mope.

While in a neck brace, and pretty sure he was not going to play again the rest of the season, he didn’t retreat into his own layer of self-pity.

He remained constantly around the team, attending just about every practice and team meeting — except the one’s that conflicted with medical checkups and the like.

He turned into a cheerleader, during down times and high times .

“I really like talking,” Copeland said, with a grin. “I was always there ... trying to be involved.”

This year, though, the 19-year-old criminal-justice major hopes to be much more involved in the outcomes of games.

Some suspect the defense might have to carry this team — at least in the early stages, in big tests like Notre Dame and Wisconsin, while likely starting quarterback Tyler O’Connor gets his bearings.

Copeland, a 5-foot-11, 192-pounder who was an Ohio state champion in the 400 meters, should prove instrumental in that plan.

“I think going into last year, he was a redshirt freshman. Thought he had a very good first game, was on the verge I think of being probably one of our more consistent guys,” MSU coach Mark Dantonio said. “I think he brings that to the table. He’s a very focused guy.

“If you’re going to have a good defense, you have to have guys that can be part of the field, tackle in space, get off blocks and run, and they have to be able to play under control as well. I think he’s able to do that.

“He has a great future ahead of him.”

Neck injuries always are scary, but Copeland at least had some perspective. He suffered a similar injury in high school, as a sophomore, when he collided helmet to helmet with one of his teammates.

That experience prepared him for the recovery process that was ahead of him. It still was scary, though. There were times he wondered if he was done playing.

“Absolutely,” Copeland said. “There was a time I was down on myself. Thanks to the people on the staff and the people behind me, everybody pushed me and was in my corner, and that motivated me every day.

“ I just want to stay healthy. If I can stay healthy, I can really show my talents and what I can do.”

Copeland was in a neck brace for a few weeks, though he didn’t have to wear it all the time, like when he was sleeping.

When it came off, he described the feeling like a “crick” in the neck.

By the time spring ball rolled around, he was cleared by doctors to do more than cheer — and by the time the opener against Furman rolls around, Sept. 2, he hopes to lead the latest incarnation of the “No-Fly Zone,” or whatever it’s called.

MSU series debuts on BTN

“Green and White Days,” an inside look at Michigan State’s training camp, debuts at 7 tonight on BTN and re-airs at 8:30. It will air 30 times over the next week.

The second episode of the three-part series debuts on Thursday, Aug. 25.