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Lions’ Ivy alumni are in a league of their own

Josh Katzenstein
The Detroit News
Caraun Reid recovered a Russell Wilson fumble and took it into the end zone for his first career touchdown last month.

Allen Park — Trash talk between Caraun Reid and Brandon Copeland is much different than other players in the Lions locker room.

Reid, a defensive tackle from Princeton, and Copeland, an edge rusher from Penn, are two of the 11 players from Ivy League schools that opened the 2015 season on an active roster in the NFL.

Sure, Copeland likes to note that he was undefeated in his four games against Princeton. He talked smack to Reid after Penn beat Princeton in overtime earlier this month and then to defensive quality control coach Steven Williams, who played at Harvard, when the Quakers beat the Crimson the next week.

But football is just one thing about which Reid and Copeland rib each other.

“They have football,” Reid said. “We have football, but then we also have the fact that we’re the greatest institution in the world.

“Yeah, you beat us in football, but we’re still going to have the higher average median salary upon graduation.”

Burn.

Trash talk aside, Reid and Copeland have a unique bond coming from the Ivy League. They had more scholastic demands than many of their teammates in college, and while many NFL players were stars on their respective campuses, Reid and Copeland weren’t big men on campus — not figuratively, at least.

Both players recognized their potential to make the leap to the NFL early in their college career, but had something went wrong in that pursuit, either would’ve had opportunities to succeed in a different field.

According to Reid, Princeton is the best university, and U.S. News & World Report agreed, ranking it atop its list for 2015. Reid conceded Harvard might be the top school some years, but he doesn’t think Penn comes close.

Copeland was happy to show off a report by USA Today in September that listed Penn second behind Yale, a newspaper he kept in his locker after linebackers coach Bill Sheridan gave it to him

“He likes to think that Penn is ranked higher as an academic institution than they are,” Reid said of Copeland. “There must’ve been some report that says they were in the top two, which was probably fabricated by a Penn student or something like that.”

Student-athletes

Coaches at both Penn and Princeton said the requirements for football players are discussed in the recruiting process. In addition to the typical commitments necessary for college football, Princeton assistant head coach Steve Verbit said the players often have to study three to four hours per night.

In the Ivy League, football players truly are student-athletes as opposed to some FBS players that plan to leave college before graduating to play in the NFL.

Copeland majored in entrepreneurship management and wanted to run his own business, but after his sophomore year when he was first-team All-Ivy, he realized his future could be in football.

Brandon Copeland

“Football was always, if you could do this, I wouldn’t trade this for anything,” Copeland said.

Copeland recalls doing a group project for a management class and having people in his group suggest he skip a game so they could work on it. Because Ivy League programs don’t require players be on campus in the summer, Copeland had two internships in the finance world during college.

Reid recognized his potential after his redshirt junior season when he was unanimously voted to the All-Ivy first team, but he was in no position to slack in school.

The way Reid describes it, football was more of a hobby for a while because of how much emphasis his mother put on his grades.

“My mom don’t play,” he said. “If I don’t do well in school, she would literally find a way for me not to play football.”

Reid, who majored in sociology, said he never missed a football game, but he did miss some practices in high school to work on other projects from his parents.

His internship was as an assistant first-grade teacher, and he actually took a semester off to give himself a chance at playing a fifth season of football — he played just one game in 2010 because of injury.

In the NFL interview process, Reid said lots of people asked what other opportunities he had outside of football, as if it might not be his top priority.

Getting an opportunity

According to Penn head coach Ray Priore, it wasn’t hard to see that the potential of Reid and Copeland or someone like Ryan Fitzpatrick, the Jets quarterback who went to Harvard.

“You can tell the kids that are that next-level player,” he said. “They just dominate the game.”

Reid had 41 tackles for loss, 20 ½ sacks and blocked seven kicks at Princeton. Copeland had 11 sacks and 26 ½ tackles for loss at Penn.

The question for them wasn’t if they had the talent, but rather if an NFL team would give them a chance.

Reid participated in a Pro Day at Princeton, but he was already locked into a likely draft spot in 2014. He was the Tigers’ first Senior Bowl participant since Hollie Donan in 1951. The Lions drafted him in the fifth round, and he's already a starter in his second season.

In preparation for the 2013 draft, Copeland attended the Pro Day at Villanova and a super regional combine in Dallas. At 6-foot-2, 265 pounds, he had to change from defensive end to outside linebacker when he got his shot with the Ravens as an undrafted rookie in 2013.

After spending some time with the Titans, Copeland missed most of the 2014 season before earning his chance with the Lions at the first veterans combine in March, proving that football was indeed the “meal ticket” he thought it was at Penn while his classmates focused a bit more in school.

“I never really entered college knowing that I would get this opportunity, so I just played ball and tried to win,” Reid said. “I knew if I tried my best, and I was the best version of me then the cards would fall where they may.”

Similar paths

Copeland and Reid have known each other since high school because they were on a recruiting visit together at Princeton.

“I cried when things didn’t work out with Copeland,” Verbit said. “Copeland should’ve been here. It should’ve been Caraun and Copeland playing right next to each other. We wouldn’t have allowed a rushing yard a game, or probably a pass yard a game because the quarterback would’ve been smothered.”

Instead, Copeland chose Penn, and both players managed to thrive on their own.

But, neither player experienced stardom in college similar to that of an SEC or Big Ten player.

“We’re the dorks on campus,” Copeland said. “People would rather associate with the frat guy, the smartest guy or the finance guy who already had a job lined up.”

People don’t even know when the Ivy League season starts and ends, Copeland joked. It starts in September and ends 10 games later without a postseason, unlike the other Football Championship Subdivision programs.

As much pride as both players take in their universities, neither seemed to think the classes were especially rigorous.

“It’s hard to get in; it’s not hard to stay in,” Reid said.

Copeland, meanwhile, boasted about his cramming abilities, often procrastinating and giving himself just a few days to cram for exams. He even joked about looking at Facebook or World Star Hip Hop during lectures, a time-killer for many college students.

No matter how difficult the process was, Copeland and Reid are both helping show Ivy League recruits they can make it to the NFL.

“You can get there, but by the same token, if the NFL doesn’t work out, you’re going to be extremely special having a degree from Princeton University,” Verbit said.

“Life will be good and you will be well-prepared to meet the challenges and really ultimately attain your goal that are set for yourself.”

The same is surely true at Penn, even if Reid won’t admit it.

jkatzenstein@detroitnews.com

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