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Trojans' Mr. Inside : One Mistake Can't Detract From Kopp's Play

November 09, 1994|EARL GUSTKEY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

At Pullman, Wash., last Saturday afternoon, USC's football team seemed in firm control of a game it needed to win to stay in the Rose Bowl race.

The Trojans were ahead, 13-3, as the fourth quarter began, and Washington State's offense had the ball at USC's 33-yard line after a Cougar interception.

Then, USC experienced a rare breakdown.

Senior Jeff Kopp, considered one of the best linebackers in the Pacific 10 Conference, muffed a play that gave the Cougars six points.

Washington State quarterback Chad Davis found his tight end, Eric Moore, alone on the sideline and connected with a touchdown pass. On the play, Moore beat Kopp badly.

Coming off the field in a rage, Kopp hurled his helmet at the Trojan bench. Then he kicked the bench. Then the defensive coordinator, Don Lindsey, approached him and held Kopp's head until they were nose to nose.

According to Kopp, Lindsey said, "Listen to me! If they run that play 100 times, I want you to cover it every time. You know why? Because I believe in you, that's why!"

"It meant a lot, when he said that," Kopp said. "I felt awful. It was one of the worst plays I ever made. They'd run that same pattern earlier and it became a screen that I'd covered for a no-gainer.

"So I hesitated a step and the guy got behind me. I blew it. Never in my career, going back to high school, had I been beaten that bad.

"Everyone saw it. Everyone knew I'd blown the play. But after Coach Lindsey said what he did, the players came up to me and made me feel a lot better, too."

As it turned out, Kopp--USC's leading tackler--had one of his best games of the season Saturday. He had two sacks, a team-high eight tackles and helped stop several Cougar drives.

All season, playing one of two inside positions, he has been the linchpin of a big-play USC defense that has held its last three opponents to four touchdowns--10 points in the last two games--in a four-game winning streak.

Kopp, a 235-pounder from Danville, Calif., is a three-season starter. He leads the Trojans (6-2, 5-1 in Pac-10) with 74 tackles, 21 more than the runner-up, linebacker Brian Williams.

"The best thing about him is his strength as a human being," Coach John Robinson said.

"He has exceptional toughness, intelligence and leadership. Sometimes coaches hesitate to call players leaders, because the next thing you know they're shooting their mouths off.

"But Jeff's leadership style is quiet, nonverbal. There's a firmness to him, the way he talks to the other players . . . everyone just knows he's a leader.

"If he wanted to coach, I'd hire him tomorrow, if I had an opening. And if he was running for something, I'd vote for him."

Kopp had 83 tackles a year ago while playing on the outside.

He credits Lindsey for encouraging him to play a more aggressive, attacking style. And when you open the season against Washington and Penn State, is there any other way to play?

Two days after USC's 24-17 opening victory over Washington, Kopp was still on a high.

"That's why I came to SC, to play the best--Washington, Penn State, Notre Dame. To play against a great back like (Napoleon) Kaufman and do pretty well against him, it's a great feeling."

When Lindsey joined Robinson's staff in early 1993, he saw in Kopp a talented player fearful of errors.

"When Lindsey came in and watched films, and then watched me in spring practice, he told me he thought I was playing too conservatively," Kopp said. "He told me again when we went up to Oregon last season. He said: 'I want you to let it all fly, but above all else have fun out there. I know you love to play aggressively, so do it.' "

Kopp partly attributes his 1993 conservative play to being at the wrong position.

"At outside linebacker, I was worried all the time about getting beat by speed guys, and it affected how I played," he said. "I'm much more comfortable inside, challenging the run. To me, inside linebacker is like being on a stage--it's a high-profile position. I love the challenge. When an offensive lineman comes after me, with a ballcarrier behind him, I take that personally. I love that challenge."

Challenges are big in the Kopp family. Jeff's father, Tom, was his freshman football coach at San Ramon High in Danville.

"Dad loves challenging me to do more, to play harder," Kopp said.

"He came down to visit during training camp last summer. One morning he shows up with his jogging stuff on and wants me to run around the campus with me.

"I had to tell him, 'Dad, we're in two-a-days now.'

"Or he'll sometimes come up to me in the off-season and say something like, 'I ran six miles today, Jeff. What did you do?' "

Kopp wears No. 35, which is identified with former USC linebackers Riki Ellison, Rex Moore and Scott Ross, who in 1990 turned it over to Kopp.

Kopp was a redshirt freshman in 1990, Ross an All-American.

"He took me aside one day and told me about the other great players who had worn 35, and told me to make sure I wore it with distinction. Then he said, 'We don't want some blankety-blank offensive player wearing it."

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