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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat

 

    Ex-Cats hang on to NFL dreams

    Former UA defensive end Copeland Bryan (49) tries to block a field goal against Stanford last season. Bryan and former teammate Danny Baugher, a punter, are looking to crack the NFL ranks after spending the entire season on practice squads.
    Former UA defensive end Copeland Bryan (49) tries to block a field goal against Stanford last season. Bryan and former teammate Danny Baugher, a punter, are looking to crack the NFL ranks after spending the entire season on practice squads.

    Two athletes. Four teams. Four practice squads.

    Former Arizona standouts Danny Baugher and Copeland Bryan are both learning what it means to be on the fringe of an NFL roster.

    “”Everybody out here has got pretty much the same skill set,”” said Bryan, a defensive end for the Chicago Bears, in a phone interview last week. “”The reason you’re not on the active roster is not because you’re not good enough. There’s a lot of politics – getting with the right system, being at the right place at the right time.””

    Bryan and Baugher, a punter for the New England Patriots, were two among few bright spots during a 3-8 season in 2005.

    Bryan led the team with 7.5 sacks, and Baugher was on pace to capture the Ray Guy Award, given to college football’s best punter, before suffering a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his right leg (his kicking leg) in Arizona’s game against Oregon last October.

    Nonetheless, the two joined safety Darrell Brooks and running back Mike Bell in being passed over in April’s NFL Draft and making teams as undrafted free agents.

    Bryan had fielded phone calls from four teams over the two-day draft and quickly signed a two-year deal with the Tennessee Titans.

    He showed enough skills as a pass-rusher to suggest he would make the final 53-man roster on Sept. 2, but he suffered a torn left calf before training camp that kept him out of the team’s preseason games, his best opportunities to prove his worth.

    Tennessee put Bryan on waivers on Aug. 29, when the team needed to trim its roster to 65 players from 80.

    Bryan said he thought the move was only a formality. The Titans had told him they liked his ability and were poised to restore him to their practice squad, provided no other teams swooped in and plucked him.

    “”At the time, I thought I would stay with the Titans,”” Bryan said. “”I had no idea the Bears would call me with such a good offer.””

    Baugher joined the Cincinnati Bengals on May 1, while still rehabilitating his leg.

    Sporting a knee brace, he lost his roster spot on July 30, when Cincinnati needed to make room for unsigned draft pick Frostee Rucker, a former USC defensive end taken in the third round.

    Less than a week later, Baugher successfully navigated cruel crosswinds in Foxboro, Mass., during a tryout for New England. He then returned to Tucson to take the last two classes he needed to complete his marketing degree at Arizona.

    As he skied punts by himself on a South Tucson field in September, Baugher was still clinging to hopes he would get an encouraging phone call from his agent.

    It was then that UA kicker Nick Folk happened upon Baugher while walking his dogs and watched his former roommate boot ball after ball into the autumn sky.

    “”It was funny,”” said Baugher in a recent phone interview. “”I’m like, ‘I’m punting really good, but this could be it for me.’ He was like, ‘You’ll make it.’ And a month later (Oct. 9), I got the call.””

    As members of practice squads, Baugher and Bryan work alongside players on the active roster but don’t usually participate in games.

    Instead, they perform on NFL versions of scout teams, running through opponents’ plays every week. Bryan, for example, lines up as both a defensive end and a tight end.

    Players can be released from practice squads at any time and cannot spend more than two years with a single team.

    Both Bryan and Baugher said they hope to see some minutes on the field at some point this season, though injuries to other players represent their best means of doing so.

    Baugher said he would accept an invitation to play in NFL Europe this April if it gave him a chance to show teams back in the United States what he can do.

    “”There’s the thought that maybe they’re grooming you for some time in the future, but you never know,”” Baugher said. “”The team is a business. They’re going to do what they have to do.””

    Bryan said he’s optimistic he’ll get a chance to play sooner or later. When he gets his opportunity, he intends to prove why he should have been drafted.

    “”I’m the fifth D-end. There’s a chance I could be activated this season,”” Bryan said. “”God forbid, I wouldn’t want to wish that anyone get hurt, but if they got injured, I would think I could be bumped up pretty quick.””

    Throughout their journeys, Baugher and Bryan have joined the network of former Wildcats populating NFL rosters.

    Bryan chatted with wide receiver Bobby Wade while with the Titans and has spoken on occasion with Bears linebacker Lance Briggs.

    Baugher, meanwhile, has an Arizona alumnus, punter Josh Miller, immediately ahead of him on the depth chart.

    He’s also befriended linebacker Tedy Bruschi, a Wildcat legend who helped anchor the program’s Desert Swarm defense in the mid-1990s.

    “”I went up and introduced myself to him, and ever since, we’ve been real fine,”” Baugher said. “”I’ll be out there at practice punting, and he’s like, ‘What’s up, Arizona?’ ‘What’s up Wildcats?’ It’s good. He’s a real leader.””

    Both Baugher and Bryan said they have used the veterans’ advice to improve their chances of sticking around the league.

    Current Arizona players are rooting for their old teammates to do just that.

    “”I know Copeland is a hard worker,”” said senior defensive end Marcus Smith. “”I’ve known that since I was a freshman. I think other teams saw his work ethic and the type of person he is, and that’s why he was getting those offers as a free agent.””

    Said Folk of Baugher: “”He’s a great athlete, a great punter, a great person. He didn’t give up after he could have quit, and he made it.””

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