Tonight is a big night not only in the life of former North Carolina defensive end Quinton Coples, but also for a family and an entire community.
It's a happy day in the eastern North Carolina town of Kinston, where Coples honed his athletic gifts on the football field and basketball court before moving on to Hargrave Military Academy and then UNC.
The two-time Tar Heel All-ACC defensive lineman survived unscathed through the NCAA scandal that took down many of his teammates, the coaches that recruited him to Chapel Hill, and has set the program back with reduced scholarships and a one-year bowl ban.
Coples showed his versatility his junior year by switching to defensive tackle out of necessity, filling the void left behind when Marvin Austin ruined his collegiate eligibility.
"Coples has been on NFL scouting radars long before the 2012 draft. The poster child for ultra-athletic recruits brought to North Carolina by former head coach Butch Davis, Coples possesses a rare combination of size, speed, athletic ability, and a versatility that has allowed him to play numerous roles across the defensive line," says Coples' NFL Draft Combine profile.
Certainly Tar Heel fans can't be thrilled about the way Coples' career at UNC ended, as the Tar Heels dropped five of six games after a 5-1 start in 2011---including a forgettable Independence Bowl performance---but tonight is Coples' night, and he should be celebrated by Tar Heel fans as he fulfills his dreams and becomes a professional athlete.
Tar Heel Illustrated breaks down Coples' prospects heading into tonight's NFL Draft first round, which begins at 8:00 pm and will be televised on ESPN. Coples is widely expected to be taken in the opening round, and he'll be in New York City tonight for the big event.
Heading into Thursday, opinions are mixed as to where Coples will wind up.
While it's pretty elementary to project Andrew Luck to the Indianapolis Colts with the first pick and Robert Griffin III to the Washington Redskins, who traded up to the No. 2 selection for him, it gets somewhat cloudier after that.
A lot of people are expecting the Minnesota Vikings to take Southern Cal offensive tackle Matt Kalil at No. 3, and SEC standouts Trent Richardson of Alabama and Morris Claiborne of LSU are both expected to go higher than Coples to teams like the Cleveland Browns and Tampa Bay Buccaneers at No. 4 and No. 5, who seemingly have more pressing needs than defensive end.
One analyst, Pat Kirwan of CBSSports.com, projects Coples going to the Jacksonville Jaguars at No. 7, while another CBSSports.com panelist, Rob Wang, has him going all the way down to No. 32, the final pick of the first round by the world champion New York Giants.
It's not terribly realistic that Coples will fall all the way to the bottom of the first round, but it's become pretty evident in recent weeks that the days not that long ago where experts including Mel Kiper suggested Coples could go as high as No. 2 overall appear to be long gone.
Still, even while there are some legitimate questions over whether Coples is ready to be a high-impact player in the NFL---CBS Sports goes as far to call Coples 'Boom or Bust,' ---there's still a very good chance he could be one of the top 10 picks tonight.
"Some have questioned his (Coples') consistency, but Coples still has been able to produce at a high level, posting more than 17 sacks the past two years (heading into the team's 2011 bowl game). He has, at times, looked to play on cruise control, but it will be tough for many NFL front offices to ignore the natural ability that Coples possesses and the physical presence he brings to any defense. He can play defensive end in both 4-3 and 3-4 schemes, and should be selected in the early part of the first round," says Coples' NFL Draft profile.
One definite possibility for Coples in the top 10 is the Carolina Panthers, who are sitting at No. 9 and are looking to make another splash after taking franchise quarterback Cam Newton with the top pick a year ago.
Pro Football Weekly's Nolan Nawrocki, also a contributor to Yahoo! Sports, is projecting Coples Thursday to Carolina, saying 'GM Marty Hurney made a statement by going against the grain last year and is empowered to take the best available talent again.'
According to the Charlotte Observer, the Panthers have shown high interest in Coples in recent days, as head coach Ron Rivera and GM Hurney reportedly visited with Coples on Monday.
At the end of the day, it may be very difficult for the in-state Panthers to let Coples get away if he's sitting there available tonight at No. 9.
Having had Julius Peppers in Charlotte for a decade, the Panthers brass should know how well the 'local kid made good' story plays in the Tar Heel State. UNC fans, perhaps disenchanted by the way the Panthers dumped Peppers essentially to save money, may start flocking back to Bank of America Stadium.
Not to mention the Panthers were atrocious defensively last season, finishing No. 24 statistically against the run and No. 25 against the pass.
The Panthers desperately need a guy that can be a threat rushing the passer while also being big and powerful enough to stop the run up front.
"Coples has a blend of speed and power on a massive frame that combine to make an uncommon prospect for the defensive line. Coples has the ability to trigger off the line of scrimmage and use strong hands and overall girth to rush the passer. While he doesn't have an array of pass-rush moves to beat NFL left tackles, his pure power allows him to be disruptive and productive at the position. Quinton plays the run very well for a tall, athletic pass rusher, and has been productive defending the run both inside and out," says Coples' Combine profile.
"He is strong and has body control through double teams that allows him to stay up and continue to make plays towards the ball. His footwork is slightly above average for his size, but he overcomes this through a natural ability and understanding how to leverage the point to overcome a would-be blocker. This will make him attractive to teams who run a 3-4 scheme, where they can mesh Coples on the line to both rush the passer and be a stout run defender. He has undisputed first-round athletic ability for his size, which is the lifeline of his game."
It's no secret that some people are questioning whether Coples has the motor and the willingness to go all-out every single play in the NFL, because he clearly didn't at times his senior year at Carolina.
If Coples falls out of the top 10, that will undoubtedly be the biggest reason why.
"Coples' motor has been the single question mark throughout his collegiate career," says his Combine profile. "While Coples is known to possess strength and quickness that should beat most offensive linemen in the ACC, at times he can disappear from the action. While he is a great interior player, Coples doesn't see much action outside the box and his lateral movement can be an Achilles heel for him when running down plays. There are also question marks surrounding his ability to use his hands, and his ability to ignite his feet and hips to make quick-twitch plays. He can seem as if he's moving in slow motion at times."
Should the Panthers decide to take a pass on the homegrown Coples, there's some chatter that he may fall to the Seattle Seahawks, who could very well be in the market for a defensive lineman.
Two national analysts, Mike Mayock of the NFL Network and Dane Brugler of CBSSports.com, are projecting Coples to the Seahawks at No. 12.
Kiper had also projected Coples to Seattle earlier this month, but in his final Mock Draft, the ESPN analyst projects Coples to the New York Jets, who have the No. 16 selection.
Jets head coach Rex Ryan was seen in Chapel Hill last month on Pro Day evaluating Coples and briefly speaking with him.
For his part, Coples doesn't seem to be terribly concerned about where he'll end up playing, but the anticipation has to be high on a night that most can only dream about.
"I haven't been paying attention to that (where I'll get selected) at all," Coples said in a recent interview with Tar Heel Illustrated. "I let everybody else talk about it and (let my agent) handle it. I just go out and give my best effort and compete."