Copeland fills Harper's shoes
It was exactly the kind of performance the Tampa Bay Bucs expected when they signed Alvin Harper to a $10.6-million contract - a tall, speedy receiver breaking the game open with some spectacular catches. It's just that they didn't expect to get it from Horace Copeland.

With Harper's Bucs debut delayed because of a sprained ankle, Copeland stepped into the starting lineup and into the spotlight Sunday - catching five passes for a career-high 155 yards, including a 64-yard TD pass that put the Bucs ahead to stay in their season-opening 21-6 win over Philadelphia. "Somebody has to grow up and step up when somebody goes down," Copeland said. "That's what you're here for. You have to be ready. That's what they pay you for."

Stepping in is one thing. Stepping up is another. Last year Copeland started the season opener against Chicago because Lawrence Dawsey was injured, but did not make some key plays and appeared to be out of the Bucs' plans. He started just one other game and finished the season with only 308 yards receiving. He says that experience "was the best thing that ever happened to me. It made me work harder."

It showed. With Harper sidelined much of the preseason (with a different injury), Copeland emerged as the Bucs' top target, leading the team in receptions (12) and yardage (243). Sunday, he was the Bucs' main man when it counted. After one game, he is more than halfway to matching his 1994 yardage. "He's more mature," receivers coach David Culley said. "He's older. He's going into his third year now. He understands the offense more. He's working hard to become a complete player instead of just a down-the-field deep threat, and it's starting to show in his play. Not having Alvin in the game today, he knew there were going to be more opportunities and he came through."

And Harper, who watched the game from the sideline in shorts, actually deserves some of the credit. "Quite frankly, having Alvin here has helped him become a better player because all the things that he wants to be, Alvin Harper has been," Culley said. "He's done a good job really watching Alvin. As you saw today, he did some things for us that Alvin Harper has done for the Dallas Cowboys and that we expect him to do for us."

But Copeland, who celebrated his first TD with a well-executed back flip in the end zone, wasn't flipping over his showing. "It was a team performance," Copeland said. "If it wasn't for the blocks, if it wasn't for throws, those plays wouldn't have happened."

Harper, limping through the locker room, said he will need treatment on his injured ankle today and Tuesday before knowing whether he will be able to play next week at Cleveland. Copeland could get another start, but he knows the long-term picture. "Alvin will be back," Copeland said. "I'm just filling in."

Said coach Sam Wyche: "Alvin's shaking in his boots, and it's hard for him because his ankle hurts when he shakes it. We're a pretty good team. I think we showed it today. We've got some depth. An Alvin Harper can go down and the guy that comes in is actually the big playmaker for us."

Marc Topkin, The St.Petersburg Times 1995