NEW ORLEANS — Damian Copeland takes Florida everywhere.
His home state, the state he loves, is displayed on his left arm, its narrow panhandle sticking out of a Louisville football jersey from shoulder blade to elbow. Its sunny destinations are labeled well enough to serve as a road map, complete with reminders of what he misses. A palm tree rests on his bicep. South of the map, a shark swims in the Gulf of Mexico. His hometown of Palmetto is represented by its “941” area code.
“When I look down,” Copeland said, “it reminds me of home.”
Wednesday’s Sugar Bowl matchup against the University of Florida (11-1) will serve as his latest reminder of home. A state he cherishes, but opted to pass on as a college mailing address. That includes Gainesville.
“I miss Florida a lot, but I always visit,” said Copeland, Louisville’s leading receiver with 48 catches for 597 yards and one touchdown. “It’s nice. It never gets cold.”
“It’s freezing in Louisville right now.”
Apparently, it takes more than weather forecasts to retain in-state recruits. Copeland is one of 34 Florida natives on the Louisville roster, from quarterback Teddy Bridgewater (Miami) and leading rusher Jeremy Wright (Clermont) to guard John Miller (Miami) and safety Calvin Pryor (Port St. Joe).
“We all have a connection,” Pryor said. “We just knew what we were capable of doing and the talent we had on the collegiate level.”
The man behind this migration, Louisville coach Charlie Strong — a former longtime assistant at Florida — was modest this week when speaking about his recruiting efforts. Strong said the goal isn’t to beat the Gators, Florida State and Miami in head-to-head battles for prep talent, but to “go find the other ones you can go get.”
Strong also knows when Pryor collects 94 tackles, second on the Louisville defense, and Bridgewater passes for 3,452 yards and 25 TDs, earning Big East Offensive Player of the Year honors in his first full season as a starter, their success delivers a subconscious-yet-tangible message to the state’s blue chippers: While the map on Copeland’s arm ends at the state line, BCS football continues.
“What we’ve been able to do is go get a player like Teddy Bridgewater and then go back in and get some more good ones,” said Strong, who as defensive coordinator won national titles at Florida in (2007, 2009).
Bridgewater said Florida recruited him as a quarterback, although he wanted to play receiver. He said he was very close to committing to then-Gators coach Urban Meyer, but was told to wait until he traveled to Gainesville for a visit.
Enter Louisville (11-1).
Strong’s coaching staff also has ties to the Sunshine State, including defensive line coach and recruiting coordinator Clint Hurtt. His last recruiting class, the highest-rated in school history, earned him National Recruiter of the Year honors from ESPN.com. Hurtt is in his third season at Louisville since leaving Miami.
The winner of Wednesday’s game at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome may earn more than a bowl victory and bragging rights.
Copeland has already exchanged text messages with Florida defensive lineman Kedric Johnson — they were teammates at Palmetto High School, just north of Bradenton.
Sometimes, these decisions can split up a family. While fullback Hunter Joyner made Florida his college choice, older brother Kamran opted for — where else? — Louisville. It made for an interesting Christmas vacation in the Tampa area.
Gator bait vs. bird feed.
Louisville’s pro-style offense will face a Florida defense that ranks in the top 15 nationally in a several categories. The Gators have held offenses to 12.9 points per game and in fourth quarters, outscored opponents 115-29.
No problem, Copeland said.
“This is one of the best defenses we’re going to face all season,” he said. “I’m ready for the challenge.”