Hopkinton’s Yianakopolos making his mark with Rhode Island football

  • Hopkinton High graduate Henry Yianakopolos (right) punches the ball away from a receiver during a University of Rhode Island football practice. URI hosts the University of New Hampshire this weekend in Kingston, R.I. University of Rhode Island Athletics / Courtesy

  • Hopkinton High graduate Henry Yianakopolos catches the ball during a University of Rhode Island football practice. Yianakopolos is a starting safety. URI Athletics

  • Henry Yianakopolos University of Rhode Island Athletics—Courtesy

Monitor staff
Published: 4/2/2021 10:03:19 AM

An influx of seven new coaches created opportunities within the University of Rhode Island football program, and Contoocook’s Henry Yianakopolos has taken advantage.

The 2017 Hopkinton High graduate has earned a starting role at safety under new URI defensive coordinator Jack Cooper, who seems to have made a wise choice. Yianakopolos, a redshirt junior for the Rams, ranks second on the team in tackles with 19, and Rhode Island is 2-1 and ranked No. 22 in the FCS heading into Saturday’s home game against the University of New Hampshire.

“With the new coaching staff and a new (defensive coordinator) you have a lot to prove, and I’m thankful that he saw something in me and trusted me to go out there and do what I could do,” Yianakopolos said.

Jim Fleming is in his seventh year as URI’s head coach, but he overhauled his staff after the 2019 season when Rhode Island went 2-10. Because the pandemic canceled the 2020 fall season for URI, UNH and most of FCS football, that new staff worked with the Rams for a year before playing a game. The extra time paid off with two overtime road wins against ranked opponents to open this spring 2021 schedule: 40-37 on March 13 at No. 6 Villanova and 17-10 on March 20 at No. 18 Albany.

“When our new coaches came in, the culture started to change, you could feel it getting better, and you could sense it through the first two wins,” Yianakopolos said. “Last week was a tough loss (35-21 against No. 8 Delaware) and leaves a bad taste in our mouth, but we’re ready to get after it this week and show people that we can bounce back and our culture is still headed in the right direction.”

Even though he’s facing his home state’s school this week, Yianakopolos is trying to keep an even keel.

“Just because it’s UNH doesn’t change much for me. It is cool to play against the home state, but I’m going to do what I do week in and week out and not change anything,” he said. “I’m just going to try and keep my head in it and do what I’ve done these last three weeks and get a win.”

Yianakopolos is looking forward to testing himself and the URI defense against the Wildcats.

“They’ve got some good route concepts that we’ve been working on,” Yianakopolos said of the UNH offense. “They do a good job using the running back out of the backfield, as well, and they’ve got a couple good players back there, and some quick guys in the slot, and then they have height on the outside. So, it’ll be good to go up against that. They offer some good challenges, but we’ve been preparing well and I have faith in our defense, so I think we’re ready for it.”

The Hillsboro-Deering-Hopkinton cooperative football program was built during Yianakopolos’s time at Hopkinton High, and he was a senior during the team’s first varsity season in 2016. So, it’s no surprise that he didn’t get recruited out of high school, but that didn’t stop him from showing his film to the coaches at both URI and UNH and visiting the football offices after he had already been accepted at both schools. Rhode Island showed the most interest by offering him a preferred walk-on status, so Yianakopolos headed to the Ocean State.

He saw just a few moments of action as a redshirt freshman in 2018, and then appeared in nine games and made one start in 2019. There were extenuating circumstances around that start, however, and Yianakopolos only played a few snaps before the safety at the top of the depth chart took over for the rest of the game. So, when he took the field as a true starter for the March 13 game against Villanova, it felt like a milestone.

“It was a very surreal moment,” Yianakopolos said. “I thought I was going to be super nervous, but the nerves weren’t really there. I felt very prepared. I thought our game plan going in was really good and I studied hard, I believed that I needed to do that for my first start, so I just felt ready. It was definitely really cool, but once you hit that field you’re playing football and it’s game time and you don’t have time to think about it like that.”

The preparation really goes all the way back to playing club football with the HDH Redhawks, and then years putting in time behind the scenes at Rhode Island until it was his turn to play. Now, when contracting COVID-19 means potentially losing a game or more and with every player getting tested twice a week, preparation has gone to another level. Yianakopolos and his teammates have gladly gone with it.

“We’ve had to sacrifice a lot, it is college and we are still young, but you don’t play at this level of football and take things lightly,” Yianakopolos said. “We’re all here for a reason and we all have one goal in mind, and we don’t have problems making sacrifices to achieve that, like staying home those nights everyone else is out on campus. This is what we love to do and we’re doing it for a reason and we wouldn’t want to jeopardize that for ourselves or anyone else.”

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