There are universal challenges every first-year coach must face, whether he is a veteran or a newbie: getting to know new players, implementing schemes, setting a foundation, making sure there is buy-in across the locker room.
Then there is the challenge facing Bobby Petrino at Louisville. As he embarks on his second stint with the Cardinals, he has to go through all these getting-to-know you moments while also:
Replacing potentially the No. 1 quarterback in the upcoming NFL draft.
Replacing his leading tackler.
Replacing his leading sack producer.
Replacing his all-conference tandem at safety.
But wait, there’s more.
Petrino also must get his players prepared for a much more grueling schedule, in a much more grueling conference home. Gone are the days when Temple, UConn and USF clogged the league schedule. The Cards open at home against Miami without much let-up to follow, as they join Florida State and Clemson in the much tougher ACC Atlantic Division.
Of all these tasks, one stands out as the most difficult.
“The biggest challenge for us is to replace a guy like Teddy Bridgewater, one of the premier players in the country,” Petrino said in a recent phone interview. “We have to go out in spring and compete and find out who it’s going to be. We have a couple guys who have the talent, just real inexperience.”
Will Gardner and Kyle Bolin are at the top of the list when spring practice opens next week. Gardner spent last season backing up Bridgewater. He played in five games, and has attempted 12 career passes. Bolin, a redshirt freshman, has never played in a college game. Incoming freshman Reggie Bonnafon, a four-star recruit, joins the mix this summer.
Petrino is known as an offensive guru, but growing pains at the position are expected. Bridgewater, who guided the Cardinals to 23 wins over the past two seasons, had plenty of them when he took over as a starter during his freshman season in 2011. But he blossomed each successive year.
He was the unquestioned leader of this offense last season and an absolute extension of then offensive coordinator Shawn Watson. Bridgewater had the ability to change plays at the line based on what he saw in the defense. He rarely made the wrong call. That type of functionality in an offense takes years to develop.
On defense, Louisville loses Preston Brown (leading tackler), Marcus Smith (leader in sacks), safeties Hakeem Smith and Calvin Pryor (another potential first-rounder), and three other starters. The Cards were one of the most underrated defenses in 2013, ranking No. 1 in the nation in total defense and rushing defense and No. 2 in scoring defense.
Finding replacements for Hakeem Smith and Pryor ranks among the biggest challenges on this side of the ball. One player to watch here is Gerod Holliman, a former ESPN 300 recruit who was rated as the No. 3 safety in the class of 2011. He was Louisville's highest-rated player in that class, which also included Bridgewater, Pryor and terrific returning receivers DeVante Parker and Eli Rogers.
“We do have some big and talented guys there [at safety], but they’re inexperienced,” Petrino said. “They’re going to have to be students of the game, because the most impressive things with the safeties we lost were how intelligent they were and how they ran the defense.”
One more challenge is building depth, particularly on the offensive and defensive lines. Generally when teams transition to better conferences, they are at a deficit in both categories. The good news is Louisville returns four starters on the offensive line. In fact, the top three players returning with the most career starts are on the offensive line -- Jake Smith (38), John Miller (34) and Jamon Brown (27).
The defensive line, however, returns only Lorenzo Mauldin among its starters.
“Depth is huge, particularly up front to be able to rotate your defensive linemen in to stay fresh, and be ready to rush the passer in the second half when the game is on the line,” Petrino said. “One of the advantages we have coming in is we are going to be a fast team.
“We’re very athletic in the secondary and at wide receiver so when you look at the game, it’s a lot about speed and athleticism at the skill positions and the speed of your defensive front, the physicalness of your offensive front. We have starters coming back on the offensive line that are really good players, but have depth issues there that we have to solve.”
The speed and athleticism are hugely important, especially when you look at the speed and athleticism of Florida State and Clemson. Plus, Petrino and new defensive coordinator Todd Grantham have coached in the SEC, the model for speed and athleticism. Their experiences there will allow them to help their players understand what to expect.
“When you play in a major conference, you have to understand each week is a new week,” Grantham said. “Anyone on your schedule can beat you. Enjoy your win on Saturday, but come Sunday go back to work. You’ve got to maintain that consistency.”
All while dealing with a major set of challenges.