MIKE O'HARA

O'HARA'S NOW AND THEN: Jerome Couplin and Ron Rice

Posted Jun 2, 2014

Ron Rice and Jerome Couplin III are birds of a feather for how they started at the bottom rung of the ladder as rookies trying to win a job with the Lions.

Ron Rice and Jerome Couplin III are birds of a feather for how they started at the bottom rung of the ladder as rookies trying to win a job with the Lions.

Rice didn’t have a nickname like the aptly descriptive moniker “Osprey” that was attached to Couplin by a writer because of his 81-inch wingspan that resembles both the bird and uniquely designed military aircraft of the same name.

Names aside, circumstances that got them to the Lions a generation apart and their respective attributes are remarkably similar. For example:

Position: Both played safety in college.

Draft status: Both were bypassed and signed with the Lions as rookie free agents.

Background: Neither played in one of college football’s power conferences, but they were defensive leaders. Rice came to the Lions in 1995 from Eastern Michigan of the Mid-American Conference. Couplin was signed out of William & Mary, a member of the Colonial Athletic Association, which is a notch below the MAC.

Physical stature: Rice played at 6-1 and 216 pounds. Couplin is listed at 6-2, 215. One inch, one pound. Couplin might as well have inherited Rice’s uniform.

NFL career: Seven seasons for Rice, the last five as a full-time starter until his career ended after eight games in 2001 because of a neck injury. Rice has numerous business interests, and he is president of the NFL Alumni Association Detroit chapter.

Couplin has had a rookie minicamp and is beginning his third week of full squad workouts in the offseason program.

Jerome CouplinS Jerome Couplin (Photo: Detroit Lions)

What separates them most is that Rice has experiences and memories from his pro career. Couplin has hopes.

Rice began his career journey on a Lions team that had a roster stocked with veteran Pro Bowl players who were used to being in the playoffs.

 “It was a little intimidating, a little scary at times,” said Rice, now 41 and still living in Metro Detroit. “Obviously, being a free agent, you’re sort of looked at as a long shot, even though you can have a fabulous college career, which I think I did.

“I had a great time in college and played well, but in the pros, it’s geared to the draft picks. And coming in as an undrafted free agent, a lot of times, at the most you might think you’ll play special teams – if you make the team.

“I always had it in the back of my mind that I had to work a little harder. If it’s baseball, I get one strike while the draft picks get three. My approach was, be the first one they see and work a little harder.”

The Lions were deep at safety in Rice’s rookie year.  Bennie Blades and Willie Clay were the starters with Van Malone, a second-round draft pick in 1995, competing to be the top reserve.

Rice was let go in the final cut, then signed back to the practice squad. In mid-season, he was signed to the active roster. By the end of the 1996 season, he had worked his way up to a starting job and held it until an injury forced his retirement.

Couplin’s situation is similar to what Rice faced.

Glover Quin and James Ihedigbo are veteran starting safeties. Don Carey, who has experience at cornerback and safety, signed a contract extension just before the end of last season and is the top reserve at the position.

Unlike Rice, Couplin does not have a hometown connection with the Lions. However, one of his agents, Tony Paige, spent three of his nine NFL seasons (1987-89) as a running back with the Lions. Paige was in touch with the Lions during the draft, and Couplin had an indication the Lions might sign him if he did not get drafted, which Couplin did not expect to happen.

“My agents told me from jump street that I’d probably be a free-agent guy,” Couplin said after a practice last week. “Going from the bottom and working up, that’s something I’ve always had to do. It’s nothing new.”

Couplin is from Upper Marlboro, Md. He played sparingly as a freshman in 2010 and was a prolific tackler and playmaker as a starter his last three years at William & Mary. In 2013, he led the team with 113 tackles and ranked 11th in the nation in solo tackles with an average of 5.8 per game.

He was not invited to the NFL Combine workouts in February but was impressive in his Pro Day workout in March. A 41.5-inch vertical jump was among the best of any player at any position in this year’s draft, and his time of 4.56 seconds in the 40-yard dash was decent.

The vertical jump stood out, but Couplin said it wasn’t his best.

“The best I did in training was 43 inches,” he said. “That’s just from standing.”

With his long arms and leaping ability, from a standing jump Couplin is able to touch the top of the white box painted above the rim on a basketball backboard.

In that regard, he lives up to the nickname “Osprey.” He soars straight up, like a bird or the military aircraft. He enjoys the nickname but knows it will have no bearing on whether he makes the Lions’ roster.

“It sounds exciting,” Couplin said. “At the same time, if I don’t perform to my potential, it doesn’t matter.”

The Lions team Rice joined in 1995 was used to winning. The Lions made the playoffs for the fourth time in five years that season, and their 10-6 record gave them double-digit wins for third time in that span.

“There were traditions, and there was a culture there,” Rice said. “There was a belief within the staff, within the fans, that we could win. Coming in, you were just hoping to fit into an established puzzle, with a culture of success.”

It was a talented roster, with players such as Barry Sanders, Herman Moore, Lomas Brown, Kevin Glover, Spielman, Blades and others. Expectations were high, but the Lions didn’t meet them in the postseason. Only in 1991 did they win a playoff game and advance.

The Lions team Couplin is trying to make hasn’t had the regular-season success of the ones that Rice played on. The Lions made the playoffs in 2011, their only postseason appearance since 1999.

Couplin leans on veterans such as Quin to learn from their experience.

“Right now, I’m learning as much from the veterans as I can,” Couplin said. “If I mess up on something, I come to the sideline and they correct me on it. If I do well, they pat me on the back. They’re always talking to me. That’s the one big gap. They know so much more because they played so much NFL football.

“The learning experience, having those games behind them, makes a big difference.”

Quin gave him an insight into the biggest difference between college and the pro game.

“One of the first things he said to me is, this game is a lot more mental than physical,” Couplin said. “This is the best of the best, the cream of the crop, but he said that the big thing that keeps people in this league is the mental part – being able to watch film, learning your assignments, learning your schemes, learning what the quarterbacks like to do, what their tendencies are.”

Rice’s advice to Couplin or any rookie in a similar situation is to take advantage of any opportunity on any unit, defense or special teams. Rice carried that mindset throughout his career.

“One of the reasons I was able to make a name for myself as a rookie was, I never relaxed,” Rice said. “If you have an opportunity to run down on a kickoff, raise your hand. Take a critical look at special teams and see where you fit and find a home. From there, if you need to, work your way up.

“In terms of job security, I never felt secure. I knew the industry I was in. I knew I was a play or game away – a bad play or game away – from giving someone else an opportunity to play.

“I never was actually to a point where I was satisfied. I became a football player.”