LOUISVILLE, Ky. – Louisville receiver Damian Copeland had reason to smile after practicing for the first time in two weeks.
The senior was held out of fall camp workouts as a precaution because of a sore left knee. But during that time, he remained active and spent a lot of time making mental notes about the ninth-ranked Cardinals' offense and marveling at the talent of the Cardinals' receiver corps.
In his return to the field Wednesday, Copeland displayed the skills that led to last season's breakout performance. After two injury-plagued years he stayed healthy and posted career highs of 50 receptions for 628 yards — second on the team to DeVante Parker's 744.
Copeland, Louisville's receptions leader, aims for a stronger follow-up in hopes of returning the Cardinals to another BCS bowl berth.
"It felt great running around out there," Copeland said. "It was just a little knee ding and the coaches wanted to be conservative in treating it.
"The biggest thing for me is building on last season and keeping it up. It all starts in practice, not just with me but across the board with everybody being on the same page. That opens it up for us."
That's a scary statement considering Louisville averaged 296.1 passing yards per game last season with Copeland's 50 catches and Parker's 10 touchdowns leading a receiving corps that returns Eli Rogers (46 receptions, 505 yards, four touchdowns) and tight end Ryan Hubbell (14 catches, 239 yards).
Cardinals junior quarterback Teddy Bridgewater has a lot of choices when he drops back to throw: juniors Kai De La Cruz and Michaelee Harris are looking to contribute, as is 6-foot-5 Tennessee transfer Matt Milton. Louisville native James Quick, a highly regarded recruit and Kentucky's Mr. Football, also figures to be in the mix after impressing coaches with his speed in fall camp.
"It's a great problem for us because we have a lot of guys to work in and target," Cardinals offensive coordinator Shawn Watson said of the receiving options.
That shouldn't be a problem for Bridgewater, who proved adept at working everyone into the game plan during Louisville's remarkable 11-2 season capped by the Cardinals' stunning Sugar Bowl upset of Florida. He hit at least seven targets each game and 10 receivers caught at least one touchdown pass.
Copeland had two TDs including one in the Sugar Bowl but was more impressive developing into a reliable and productive option for Bridgewater. Playing just one game before sustaining a season-ending knee injury, the 6-1, 182-pound Bradenton, Fla., native caught four passes each in the first two games and went on to be a reliable alternative whenever defenders keyed on Parker.
Copeland's agenda remains the same, other than wanting to maximize his chances even more.
"I just want to make plays for my team," Copeland said. "The way our offense is set up with playing pitch and catch, if they're on DeVante, that leaves me open and if they're on me, that leaves him open.
"But keying on any one receiver would be a mistake because we have so many threats. ... My attitude is to outdo last year."
Practicing again is a step in the right direction though Watson points out that Copeland has also been helpful in mentoring Cardinals underclassmen such as Quick, whose fast grasp of the system has put him on the radar.
Then again, the coordinator notes that Copeland set the example by working his way back from injury last year to become an option that Louisville hopes to use even more this season.
"It's really nice having him back out because he gives us a lot of speed on the edge," Watson said.
"He's just a real steady guy, never gets too high or too low, he always comes out here with a work ethic and really sets the tone and pace in practice for that group."