NCF Nation: Mario Benavides

Louisville coach Charlie Strong has been asked 1,000 different ways about the makeup of his team headed into 2013, about its potential, about the opportunity to run the table.

And we have not even hit August.

Those questions will only increase as the season grows closer but for right now, Strong wants one of his own answered -- Who will step up and become a leader on this team? The obvious answer is quarterback Teddy Bridgewater, of course. But Strong knows you need more than one strong leader to field a championship team.

Though the senior class was very small last year, the Cards got some great leadership out of center Mario Benavides, who had lived through the ups and downs in the program to start virtually every game of his career. Daniel Brown and Adrian Bushell provided leadership defensively.

This year is different, not only because of expectations but because this is a more veteran group.

Yes, Bridgewater is back, but the Cards have a much larger senior class than they did a year ago, and will have more senior starters as well. Strong has keyed on linebacker Preston Brown emerging as his defensive leader, now that he is going into Year 3 as a starter.

The Cards have players accustomed to the system. They have a coaching staff that has remained nearly intact. Strong hopes that helps the team remain focus despite the outsized expectations.

"The guys are really working and they understand," Strong said recently from the ACC spring meetings. "What’s great about it is they’re welcoming the challenge but do we have enough leadership to take a hold of it and do we have enough leadership where our players will understand how hard they have to work?

"It’s all about leadership. You have guys that have been in the program. We’re going into our fourth season as a coaching staff so we feel like we’ve established enough with our players that they understand the workload and what it’s all about now."

Q&A: Louisville RG Jake Smith

March, 14, 2013
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Louisville has to replace two starters on the offensive line this season -- center Mario Benavides and left tackle Alex Kupper. The good news is that three veterans return on the line in right guard Jake Smith, right tackle Jamon Brown and left guard John Miller.

But there is no getting around that the new faces will have some work to do when spring practice opens next week. I had a chance to catch up with Smith, the veteran of the group with 25 starts, and ask about the changes and expectations headed into 2013. Here is a little of what he had to say.

How much work does your group have to do this spring in trying to get different players integrated as starters?

JS: Losing Mario and [Alex Kupper] is huge. Those guys were paramount to our success last year. We’re just going to have to replace their productivity with guys we’re bringing back. Kam [Joyer] started some games, and then Nacho [Garcia] and Ryan Mack, him and Nacho are going to be duking it out at left tackle. We’re going to have to bring those guys along. Myself personally, and Jamon and John, we’re going to have a lot of growing up to do. We’re going to need to find some continuity between the offensive line. It started in the offseason and spring ball’s going to be a big benchmark for where we’re at right now.

Are there things you can do to help Kam along?

[+] EnlargeJake Smith
Mark Konezny/USA TODAY Sports Guard Jake Smith said the Cardinals will have "a bulls-eye on our back with everybody we play."
JS: Communication is one of the biggest things when you transition from a guy who’s played but hasn’t started. When you’re out there and the bullets are flying, it’s sometimes hard to recognize some of the things that are going on. Kup was by far the biggest communicator on the line last year, and I’m going to have to step into that role and kind of help these guys out. I’ve got my fair share of experience. I’ve got 25 starts under my belt. John has 20 and Jamon has a lot himself, so we’re going to have to come in and communicate and teach these guys how to carry themselves as starters. And next year, I wouldn’t say there’s going to be any growing pains but we’re definitely going to have a lot to improve on and it’s going to start in spring.

Mario is a player you never had to worry about, because he always knew what to do. So how do the expectations now change with a new starter at center?

JS: Mario’s a guy who’s been there. The last four years have been his and before him it was Eric Wood, so he learned from the best and Kam learned from the best, too. If there’s anybody you model yourself after, Mario’s certainly the guy, and it’s just going to take a lot of adjustments and a lot of getting used to, but I think by the season we’ll be fine.

When you said you want to take on a bigger communication role, how do you go about training yourself to do that?

JS: It’s kind of a long process. I’d like to think last year I knew what was going on pretty well but me and Jamon and John, we’re just going to have to become more students of the game. The more you know what’s going on, the more conviction you can have when you make your calls and when you’re recognizing defenses and trying to make calls for other guys. I’m not saying nobody is going to know what’s going on but say somebody gets caught up in a sticky situation. You’re always going to need that guy on the line who can make a call for them and direct traffic. I think it’s going to be a joint effort with the guys who have played pretty extensively. I think Kam will be fine in there. He’s a physical freak. Nacho, he’s a young guy, he’s going to come along. He’s got a really good attitude and he’s pretty smart, too. So we’ll just have to see how it goes.

How much does it help that the three returning starters have so much experience on the line?

JS: It helps a lot. Obviously, we’re still starters but we’re moving into a little different role than we had last year. We rode Mario and Kup’s coattails last year and we’re going to have to be the guys who can really bring this thing along. I think we’ll be fine in doing that. It’s just going to take a lot of time in the film room. We need to get a better grasp of the game. We need to make sure we hone our skills and understanding.

How do you feel going into the spring knowing a lot of people are expecting a perfect season?

JS: There’s no question that the pressure’s going to be on us this year. There’s going to be a bulls-eye on our back with everybody we play, so this offseason the coaches have been preparing us for that and really been putting the pressure on us in workouts and making sure we don’t get complacent like we did last year because there’s always room for improvement. We still lost two games. We’re going into next season and we don’t want to lose any games. It’s all about knowing how to win, learning how to win and learning how to be a consistent winner.

Big East at the combine

February, 26, 2013
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Twenty-four former Big East players and several more stars from future conference teams have been in Indianapolis the past week showing off in front of their prospective future employers. With the NFL scouting combine wrapping up today with defensive backs working out, we'll take a look at how some of the Big East's stars fared.

Big East all-bowl team

January, 10, 2013
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It's time to unveil the Big East all-bowl team, honoring those players who had the best performances in the postseason.

OFFENSE

QB: Teddy Bridgewater, Louisville. What more can I say about Bridgewater, who began his 2013 Heisman campaign with a big game against Florida in the Allstate Sugar Bowl? Bridgewater went 20-of-32 for two touchdowns in the decisive 33-23 win.

RB: Prince-Tyson Gulley, Syracuse. Gulley was a running machine, busting free for a career-high 213 yards and three total touchdowns in a 38-14 win over West Virginia in the New Era Pinstripe Bowl.

RB: George Winn, Cincinnati. Winn capped a great senior season, running for 130 yards and a touchdown in a 48-34 win over Duke in the Belk Bowl.

OT: Justin Pugh, Syracuse. There is a reason Pugh has declared early for the NFL draft. He showed why he is one of the best tackles in the country in the win over West Virginia, helping pave the way for 369 yards rushing and protecting Ryan Nassib well.

OT: Alex Kupper, Louisville. Those who have followed the Cardinals believe Kupper had one of the best performances of his career in the win over the Gators. For the first time in a four-game stretch, Louisville was able to get its run game going.

C: Mario Benavides, Louisville. Benavides has been the best center in the Big East for several years, and he played well in the final game of his career.

OG: Austen Bujnoch, Cincinnati. Bujnoch played with a foot injury after missing most of the bowl practices and had another great game as the Bearcats ran for 222 yards.

OG: Zack Chibane, Syracuse. Chibane teamed with Pugh on the left side to open huge holes all day.

TE: Travis Kelce, Cincinnati. Kelce capped his monster season with a monster game, catching five passes for a career-high 123 yards -- including the 83-yard game-winning touchdown catch with 44 seconds left.

WR: Anthony McClung, Cincinnati. McClung had three catches for 110 yards and a 25-yard touchdown against Duke in the Belk Bowl in one of the best performances of his career.

WR: Devin Street, Pitt. The Panthers had a dreadful day on offense, but Street was a bright spot with seven catches for 83 yards and a touchdown in a 38-17 loss to Ole Miss in the BBVA Compass Bowl.

DEFENSE

DL: Marcus Smith, Louisville. Smith came through in a big way on the line in a dominating performance against Florida. His name does not show up often on the stat sheet, but he made his presence felt.

DL: Brandon Sharpe, Syracuse. Sharpe was a big reason why Geno Smith was flustered all day long. Sharpe finished with four tackles, a sack and a forced fumble on the day.

DL: Jamil Merrell, Rutgers. Merrell had a huge game in a 13-10 overtime loss to Virginia Tech, notching a career-high two sacks in the game as the Scarlet Knights held the Hokies to 196 yards of total offense.

LB: Siriki Diabate, Syracuse. Diabate led the way with 10 tackles, three tackles for loss and half a sack, and he contributed to a safety early in the win over the Mountaineers.

LB: Greg Blair, Cincinnati. Blair set a Cincinnati bowl record with a game-high 15 tackles. He forced and recovered a fumble early that changed the momentum against the Blue Devils.

LB: Preston Brown, Louisville. Brown finished with 13 tackles -- 1.5 for loss -- and one pass breakup in the win over the Gators.

LB: Khaseem Greene, Rutgers. Greene was a stalwart once again, finishing the loss to Virginia Tech with 11 tackles, half a sack and one forced fumble he recovered in the end zone -- the only Rutgers touchdown of the game.

CB: Terell Floyd, Louisville. Floyd's 38-yard interception return for a touchdown on the opening play of the game set the tone for the Cardinals. It was Louisville's first defensive score of the season.

CB: Brandon Jones, Rutgers. Jones set a career high and Rutgers single-game bowl record with two interceptions against the Hokies.

S: Jason Hendricks, Pitt. Hendricks had a great game in a loss to the Rebels, with a whopping 17 tackles, two tackles for loss and an interception.

S: Calvin Pryor, Louisville. Pryor had six tackles and registered his fifth forced fumble on the season when he recorded his first sack of the season in the third quarter.

SPECIAL TEAMS

P: Matt Yoklic, Pitt. Yoklic had plenty of opportunities to punt in this game and made the most of them, leading all Big East postseason punters with a 48.3-yard average on six punts.

K: Tony Miliano, Cincinnati. Miliano led all Big East kickers during postseason play with 12 points -- making both his field goal attempts and all six extra-point attempts against Duke.

ESPN.com All-Big East team

December, 10, 2012
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The time has finally come to announce our picks for the ESPN.com All-Big East team.

You will see that only a few selections differ from the coaches'; they made their first- and second-team selections last week. Among the notable differences: I have Cincinnati running back George Winn on the first team ahead of Pitt running back Ray Graham. I thought Graham was great this year in his return from a torn ACL. But I thought Winn was better and more consistent. He also had more total yards rushing (1,204 to 1,042 for Graham), a higher rushing average (5.3 ypc to 4.7 ypc) and more 100-yard games.

I also have Pitt receiver Devin Street on the first team over DeVante Parker from Louisville. Parker had some flashy catches this year, but Street was way more productive and consistent. I actually went back and forth between Street and teammate Mike Shanahan for first-team honors. Both are worthy.

Defensively, I only have three linebackers on my team (no ties allowed!) so Sio Moore of UConn gets bumped. Moore had a heck of a year, no question, and linebacker was perhaps the strongest position in the league across every team. But I thought Yawin Smallwood, Greg Blair and Khaseem Greene were better. I also have Calvin Pryor at safety over Duron Harmon.

Here is the team in its entirety:

OFFENSE

QB: Teddy Bridgewater, Louisville

RB: Montel Harris, Temple

RB: George Winn, Cincinnati

WR: Alec Lemon, Syracuse

WR: Devin Street, Pitt

TE: Travis Kelce, Cincinnati

OT: Eric Lefeld, Cincinnati

OT: Justin Pugh, Syracuse

C: Mario Benavides, Louisville

OG: Austen Bujnoch, Cincinnati

OG: Antwan Lowery, Rutgers

K: Brandon McManus, Temple

RS: Matt Brown, Temple

DEFENSE

DE: Trevardo Williams, UConn

DE: Dan Giordano, Cincinnati

DT: Scott Vallone, Rutgers

DT: Aaron Donald, Pitt

LB: Greg Blair, Cincinnati

LB: Yawin Smallwood, UConn

LB: Khaseem Greene, Rutgers

CB: Adrian Bushell, Louisville

CB: Logan Ryan, Rutgers

S: Shamarko Thomas, Syracuse

S: Calvin Pryor, Louisville

P: Brandon McManus, Temple
Charlie Strong/Kyle FloodGetty ImagesDespite realignment distractions, Charlie Strong (left) and Kyle Flood's seasons comes down to tonight's battle for the Big East title.
It has been lost on no one that the two teams playing tonight in New Jersey for a Big East title are not long for the Big East world.

Rutgers and Louisville have made more headlines in the last two weeks for where they are headed, not where they belong right now. And yet, there is a football game to be played with Big East title and BCS hopes on the line.

Imagine that, a football game in the middle of realignment madness!

Now, some of the luster may be gone from this matchup because 1) both teams are coming into the game off a loss 2) neither team is ranked in the current BCS standings and 3) both teams are headed out the door in (relatively) short order. It does not help Louisville that speculation already has surfaced that coach Charlie Strong has interviewed at Auburn, a report he has denied.

Distractions seem to be the order of the day on both sides, but both coaches said this week they have done their best to keep their players' focused on the huge prize that awaits: a spot in the Orange or Sugar Bowls. Rutgers (9-2, 5-1) already has a share of the Big East title, despite losing last week to Pitt. That is because the Cardinals (9-2, 4-2) also lost, in triple overtime to UConn.

If Rutgers wins tonight, the Scarlet Knights get the BCS berth. If Louisville wins, then we would have to wait for the final BCS standings to make its expected spot in the BCS official. That is what is most important, no matter chatter about realignment or coaches' fates.

"There's a lot at stake for us," Rutgers linebacker Steve Beauharnais said in a phone interview this week. "We’re just going to have to play our game. There’s a reason we got to this point. There’s a reason we have nine wins. We have to keep doing exactly what we’re doing and everything will be fine."

Well, Rutgers has to do what they were doing in its nine wins. Because last week against the Panthers, the Scarlet Knights did not play their best game. Perhaps the weight of clinching at least a share of their first Big East title ever was too much. This is a team that has struggled before with Big East hopes on the line (see: UConn, 2011; Cincinnati, West Virginia 2006).

Rutgers coach Kyle Flood batted down that theory, though it is hard to just call this another game. The key is to get his players to put what happened last week behind them.

"The focus is on the game and on the schematics and on the players," Flood said. "We're certainly not naive to what the result of the game will dictate for either team. It's a big game. It's the kind of game that you want to be in as a player and as a coach, and it's the kind of game as a program that we hope to be in every year."

Strong has to do the same. Louisville began the season 9-0 but has dropped two straight. Confidence has sagged, and quarterback Teddy Bridgewater is nursing a broken wrist and sprained ankle. Strong said this week he has reminded his players of all the good things they did en route to the best start in school history.

Center Mario Benavides, one of the handful of senior leaders on this team, believes the Cardinals felt pressure to keep up their unbeaten season. Now, that pressure is gone -- and they can still earn a championship.

"You never want to lose games," Benavides said. "But what happened the last two games, it took away pressure that may have been self-imposed off us. You can say what you want -- it’s only human nature to feel a little bit of pressure. There was a stinging feeling after these two losses. But now, I think there's more of an excitement rather than being anxious and being upset and worried about what happened. There's still a championship in front of us."

SYRACUSE, N.Y. -- Louisville coach Charlie Strong came out of the visiting locker room with his head down and opened with a brutally honest assessment of what happened Saturday afternoon.

“I am very embarrassed today for our program,” Strong said.

No. 9 Louisville came into its game against Syracuse with almost every college football observer in the nation wondering whether the Cardinals were for real. They got no love in the polls, no love from the computers, and no love in the BCS standings as one of six unbeaten teams headed into the weekend.

The only way to shut up the doubters? To put together a complete effort in front of a national television audience Saturday afternoon and inch ever so slightly toward a perfect season.

Instead, Louisville put together its most incomplete effort of the season in a 45-26 loss, in what amounted to a completely inexplicable performance from the conference flag-bearer.

Now the Big East is left with zero unbeaten teams, and no more relevance in the national conversation. It was lost on nobody that the team that delivered the beatdown is headed out of the league and into the waiting arms of the ACC.

On the bright side, it's hard to imagine the Big East taking a huge hit to its image, given how little pundits think of this league. Going into this game, virtually everybody put Louisville on upset alert, so that should tell you that almost everyone thought Saturday's end result was inevitable.

The proof was there: Louisville hung on by a thread in every game this year, trailing at various points of nearly every contest. But this team had a resilience nobody else in the league showed. Louisville found a way to get to 9-0 -- its best start in school history.

The hot start was good for the Big East, despite nobody embracing this team. And yes, this season seemed to be shaping up differently for the much-maligned conference.

Remember, the story at the midseason point was three unbeaten teams carrying the conversation. Now, much has reverted to form around these parts. There is nobody strong enough to avoid an upset at the hands of (1) a losing team or (2) a team from the MAC.

There are easy explanations for what happened against the Orange, and it had nothing to do with luck running out. Louisville was outcoached and outplayed. Simple.

The Cardinals had their worst defensive performance under Strong. The last time the Cardinals gave up this many points, Steve Kragthorpe was the coach and Louisville lost to Rutgers 63-14 to close out the 2008 season.

You name it, and, well, it went wrong. Louisville could not contain Syracuse receiver Alec Lemon, who ended up with 176 yards receiving and two touchdowns. Louisville could not stop the run, giving up 278 yards on the ground. Louisville got absolutely no pressure up front. Oh, and did we mention the missed tackles?

“The flaws really showed up today,” Strong said. “But you come on the road and you are going to get flaws. You have to be prepared. No. 1, you have to pack your defense. We didn’t pack our defense today. You have to pack your special teams. We didn’t pack our special teams. It’s discipline. We weren’t a very disciplined football team today. What happens -- you come into an environment like this and lose a game.”

The offense wasn't exactly rockin’ and rollin’ out there, either. The run game was nonexistent once the Cardinals lost leading rusher Senorise Perry to a leg injury on the opening drive. After trailing 31-10 in the second quarter, Louisville had to abandon its game plan and just fling it on every down. But even then, Teddy Bridgewater had difficulty finding his most reliable targets, because Syracuse just took them all away.

“We felt like we knew what they were going to do on each and every down,” Syracuse safety Shamarko Thomas said. “We knew if we stayed attached to the receivers and Teddy Bridgewater didn’t have anybody to throw to, he’d have to throw it out of bounds.”

None of this is to take away from what Syracuse did on senior day. The Orange had the perfect game plan, and worked hard to control every aspect. They did just that, winning everywhere: offense, defense, special teams, the turnover battle, time of possession, third-down conversions, scoreboard.

Syracuse now stands one win away from becoming bowl-eligible. All that “hot seat” talk about Doug Marrone should be firmly put to rest. The man has now led his team to upset wins against highly ranked unbeaten squads two years in a row.

For Louisville, the disappointment cannot last long. The anger in the postgame locker room must turn to focus and motivation. Despite the loss, Louisville can still clinch a Big East title and a BCS appearance. Perhaps it was hard to really see that glimmer of hope after its unbeaten season was dashed.

But two more wins get the Cardinals to the same place they would be had they won out.

“When you’re winning every game and you’re undefeated, each game gets bigger and bigger regardless of who you’re playing, because you’re getting close to that undefeated season,” center Mario Benavides said. “Being undefeated was never our main goal. Our main goal is to win the Big East, and we can still do that.”
When Louisville and Pitt played last season, nearly everybody expected the Cardinals to win.

They came into the game on a three-game winning streak, off a huge victory against West Virginia. Pitt, meanwhile, entered with losses in three of its previous four games and looked particularly shaky on offense. But as is the case in Big East play, you never quite know what is going to happen until teams line up and play.

The Panthers dominated the line of scrimmage and pulled the upset. The loss essentially cost Louisville a BCS berth.

[+] EnlargeMario Benavides
Jamie Rhodes/US PresswireMario Benavides, 55, expects Louisville to handle success better this season than it did last season.
Now here we are again, with a somewhat similar scenario. No. 18 Louisville (5-0) is favored to win and looks like the better team. Pitt (2-3) is the most baffling team in the Big East. If you include last season, Pitt has won four straight over Louisville. You see why there are some who are calling for the Panthers to pull the upset Saturday.

"Traditionally, we're not very good against them, and that's one thing we have to be wary of," guard Jake Smith told reporters in Louisville. "They do have a good football team, they're a good defensive team, and they're a very smash-mouthed offense. We're definitely aware of how we played last year, and we came out a little flat. I think it was pretty obvious to everybody."

Coach Charlie Strong made headlines following that loss, when he mentioned the release of a new video game might have played a role in his team's lack of focus. Center Mario Benavides said in a telephone interview this week that he did not think that video game had much to do with the way his team played. The poor performance might have just been a lack of maturity.

"I know I wasn't thinking about my kill streak or anything like that during the game," Benavides said. "For him, it was more frustration because we didn’t play up to the level we were supposed to. I just think it was a combination of things. I'm not sure some of the younger guys knew how to handle beating a team like West Virginia."

Since that loss to Pittsburgh, Louisville has won seven straight regular-season games. This is a more mature team, no question. But the Cardinals have not put a complete game together in several weeks. They struggled in the rain against winless Southern Miss. They struggled to put FIU away. They collapsed in the second half against North Carolina and nearly lost.

Some of those inconsistent performances have people questioning Louisville. All of a sudden, a team that had a losing record in 2009 is being criticized for not looking perfect enough en route to a 5-0 start.

"I’d much rather be in a position where we're criticized because we’re not winning by enough rather than being in a position where we’re 2-3 right now or 2-4 like last year," Benavides said. "But having said that, I think that a lot of that criticism is warranted, because a lot of people expect a lot out of us this year. To me, it's a complement because people are expecting us to win by more, and to be honest, we expect to win by more, too, and so do our coaches. It doesn’t bother me as much as it motivates me.

"Being one of the older guys, I’ve been through a lot of the bad times. I’m living in the moment and taking one week at a time, and right now our main concern is Pitt, because we haven’t beaten them in such a long time and they are a tough team."

Plus, this the start of Big East play, and the Cardinals have their eyes firmly set on winning the league and getting to a BCS game for the first time since 2006. To help their cause, Louisville simply must avoid another upset at the hands of Pitt.
For the first time since anybody on the current Louisville football team has arrived at the school, the Cardinals will be the favored team heading into their rivalry game against Kentucky on Sunday.

Perhaps that is a big reason why the intensity surrounding this game has grown a few notches since the summer. Trash talk between both sides has been flying. A mini-brouhaha over the placement of Kentucky billboards on the Louisville campus set message boards and Twitter aflutter. The back and forth has resembled talk that surrounds the basketball teams, not the football teams.

Louisville coach Charlie Strong has done his best to keep his players focused on the game. After some of his players took to Twitter to boast about how badly they would beat the Wildcats, he made a point to tell them to stop talking. The trash talk has subsided, but players they are alluding to the game anyway. Defensive lineman Jamaine Brooks tweeted Tuesday, "Everybody asking bout Sunday just get ya popcorn ready."

Different feel in Louisville indeed.

"I try to get our players to stay away from all that talking because when the game is played, you're going to have to do your talking on the field, so back away from the talking," Strong said earlier this week. "What’s going to be key for us is what we have to get done with our football team. We can’t worry about Kentucky. ... You can talk about the billboards, you talk about what our guys are saying, but on Sunday, they get to prove who is the better football team."

Kentucky players have continued to sound off. After quarterback Morgan Newton slammed the type of schedule the Cardinals play earlier this month, linebacker Avery Williamson recently told WHAS-11 TV in Louisville, “I’d love to hit Teddy [Bridgewater]” to “let him know how physical it’s going to be."

Bridgewater has stayed above the fray. When asked earlier this summer if he paid attention to some of the talk coming from Kentucky, he said, "Not at all." Bridgewater is 1-0 against Kentucky, having come off the bench last season to lead the Cardinals to the upset win.

But center Mario Benavides has much more experience in this rivalry game, having started against the Wildcats as a redshirt freshman in 2009. He has suffered through the losses, and the down times and understands why there is a different sense surrounding this game.

The roles between the teams have essentially been reversed, and hopes are high not only for a victory in this game, but for another Big East championship.

"The only thing I can compare it to is the excitement and the fire the Kentucky fans had when we went to their place my first year starting in 2009, except it was the other way around," Benavides said in a phone interview. "It was a tough environment for an 18-year-old kid in his first game starting in a big-time environment. Now we have such great fans in Louisville. They’re waiting for an opportunity like this, for a potential season like this.

"We’ve always had support but now we’ve given them something to be excited about. It’s definitely a totally different feel, especially for me being one of the older guys. There's a lot of excitement, but you always have that guy on your shoulder telling you to just focus in and play the game and not get too caught up in all that other stuff."
Here are my picks for the Big East all-conference team.

Offense
QB B.J. Daniels, USF
RB Lyle McCombs, UConn
RB Ray Graham, Pitt*
RB Montel Harris, Temple*
TE Ryan Griffin, UConn
OT Justin Pugh, Syracuse
OT Martin Wallace, Temple
C Mario Benavides, Louisville
OG Chris Jacobson, Pitt
OG Mark Popek, USF
WR Alec Lemon, Syracuse
WR Andre Davis, USF

Defense
DE Trevardo Williams, UConn
DT Scott Vallone, Rutgers
DT Aaron Donald, Pitt
DE Ryne Giddins, USF*
DE Walter Stewart, Cincinnati*
LB Khaseem Greene, Rutgers
LB DeDe Lattimore, USF

LB Sio Moore, UConn
CB Logan Ryan, Rutgers
CB Adrian Bushell, Louisville
S Hakeem Smith, Louisville
S Duron Harmon, Rutgers

Special teams
PK Kevin Harper, Pitt
P Pat O'Donnell, Cincinnati
RS Ralph David Abernathy IV, Cincinnati

* = tie

Notes: About those ties. Graham is a no-brainer all-conference back when healthy. The only problem is I have no idea how healthy Graham is right now or how healthy he is going to be when the season ends. He could start slow and finish fast. Or maybe he won't regain his old form. So I am hedging my bets a little and putting him on there with Montel Harris of Temple. Harris has the potential for a 1,000-yard season.

Defensive end: I really think Williams, Giddins and Stewart have the potential to hit double-digits in sacks this season. That is how highly I think of them. And if the Big East coaches have ties on their all-conference team at the end of the year, so can I!

Tight end: This was a tough one. Griffin is in my preseason Top 25 countdown, but I was a little worried when I saw he would not be starting against UMass. Coach Paul Pasqualoni said not to pay attention to the depth chart because he and John Delahunt are interchangeable. Still got me to thinking that Hubie Graham of Pitt could very well be the first-team tight end at the end of the season.

Receiver: This is a toss-up. I really love Davis' potential. I know a lot are going to clamor for Devin Street to be on the list. He is my next man up. I went with Lemon over Street because I have more confidence in the Syracuse passing game than Pitt.
Rutgers nose tackle Scott Vallone is perhaps the most unheralded player on his team, let alone the entire Big East.

He has never gotten the pub that some of his teammates have received. Never been honored on the Big East first or second team. Yet Vallone is one of the biggest "glue guys" the Scarlet Knights have, holding everything together on the defensive line.

[+] EnlargeScott Vallone
AP Photo/Tomasso DeRosaRutgers' Scott Vallone does more than just show up for starts -- he produces. Vallone had a career-high 58 tackles last season.
How has he done it? Vallone has become a new-age Big East iron man, starting every game of his Rutgers career. That would be 38 to be exact, leading all returning players in the league as he heads into his senior season.

"It’s definitely something I can take a little bit of pride in, but I also have a great understanding for what’s gotten me to this point," Vallone said in a recent phone interview. "Our strength and conditioning staff has done a great job getting me ready every week, and I have learned how to take care of my body. A lot of the credit has to go to the staff for having that faith in me as a redshirt freshman and realizing I could have an opportunity to make an impact."

Nothing about the way his career started would have given anybody the idea that Vallone would go on to become Mr. Dependable. As one of the more highly heralded defensive tackles in the nation, Vallone arrived to Rutgers as a freshman in 2008. He played in two games before undergoing season-ending foot surgery and taking a redshirt.

The following spring, Vallone was listed third on the depth chart at defensive tackle and nose tackle.

"The odds were a little stacked," Vallone said. "I knew it was going to be a tough road ahead."

Vallone also was trying to shake off the last bit of his foot injury as well. But he worked as hard as he could to make an impression on his coaches. That hard work turned into a starting job. Vallone trotted onto the home field Sept. 7, 2009, against Cincinnati for his first career start as a 19-year-old redshirt freshman.

"I was taking it all in at that point," Vallone said. "It was the biggest crowd in our school’s history, so the place was rocking. The memories weren’t too fond, we got beat pretty bad (47-15). It was a tough game but it was a great experience to get under my belt and it set me up well for the rest of that season and rest of my career to deal with that type of energy, and deal with the type of players we were going against."

Vallone ended up making the Football Writers Association of America Freshman All-America team after making 41 tackles, nine for loss. In 2010, he had multiple tackles in 11 of 12 games. This past season, he had a career-high 58 tackles and a career-high 2.5 sacks after overcoming a scary ankle injury in the spring.

In fact, that injury was the only time in his career that left Vallone worried that he might miss some game action. When he initially hurt his ankle, he felt a pop and thought he did some pretty major damage. But Vallone ended up with a sprain and actually returned to spring practice to set an example for his teammates.

"I wanted to send a message to the team that I was for real," Vallone said. "I wanted to play with the guys and finish out the spring."

Vallone was unable to participate in practice this past spring because of offseason shoulder surgery, but he should be ready for the start of fall practice. Missing practice time ate at Vallone, but he realizes now it was probably good for him to prevent so much wear and tear on his body.

After all, Vallone has been an iron man at one of the most physically demanding positions on the football field. Playing inside at an undersized 275 pounds, Vallone has to constantly fight against 300-pound offensive linemen in the trenches, where strength and endurance is an absolute must in order to be any good at your job.

Vallone has spent his share of days and nights in ice tubs trying to heal up from the grind while making sure none of his injuries linger on too long. His role will be heightened this season because the line will be the most inexperienced group on a defense that returns eight starters. Coach Kyle Flood has mentioned that Vallone could play both tackle positions, depending on the circumstances.

That is just fine with Vallone. Whatever keeps him on the field.

I had a chance to catch up with Louisville center Mario Benavides, who is finally healthy for the Cardinals after missing the first three games of the season with a serious infection in his right ankle. I asked Benavides about the improvement on the offensive line, and what he went through when he had to sit on the sideline.

The offensive line had probably its best performance of the season last week against Rutgers. What was the biggest difference?

MB: Everybody knew Rutgers was one of the top schools in the nation in sacks and creating turnovers. That gave us an edge throughout the whole week of practice. Being a younger group of guys, we’re finally starting to jell. We’re finally getting a feel for each other.

[+] EnlargeMario Benavides
Jim Owens/Icon SMILouisville center Mario Benavides (55) is getting back up to speed after missing the first three games of the season.
You were the only returning starter and you missed three games. So how long does it take for a group of guys to be able to work together well?

MB: There’s no timeline. When it happens it happens. As one of the older guys, you know when it’s coming. I feel like we’re starting to go in the right direction. The line we had last year, it took us a year and a half to play the way we did last season. Last year was when we finally jelled. Everybody matures at a different rate. We’ve asked the young guys to grow up quickly and they’re finally starting to do that.

How hard was it on you to sit out?

MB: It was really hard. I never had to sit out anything high school or college. I started every game besides one against Arkansas State last year. To go into camp feeling relatively healthy for the first time in three years, I was feeling pretty good about getting to work with the younger guys. It hurt us as a line and me, having to sit back and sit out and miss the first three games. That’s a long time, that’s two months without getting to work with the guys. I was thrown into the mix Marshall week with two days in practice. So I literally went from laid up in bed to playing.

So how did you get hurt?

MB: I had an infection in the joint of my right ankle that put me in the hospital for a while. It was tough. I lost 20 pounds and didn’t have an appetite. I was really sick. It was just one of those freak accidents where I woke up at the beginning of camp and I couldn’t put any weight on my ankle. I was in excruciating pain. It was an infection that was forming within my joint for a while and it finally blew up on me. I had to go in and do all kinds of stuff on it to get the pressure relieved.

How did you get the infection?

MB: I don’t know. I didn’t have a wound. It’s one of those things where I woke up and didn’t have any cuts. It was weird because I felt it between the bones, and was like, ‘What is going on?’ I can’t explain it. Even the doctors were kind of, ‘Hey, what’s going on? It was like a case study. I was in the hospital for a week and a half, two weeks total, in and out every a couple days. There was nothing I could do.

I cannot even imagine how hard that was on you.

MB: It was devastating. I felt like me being out there in games would at least give them a mental edge. Not only was I not playing with them, I wasn’t on the sideline. That was hard for me. You can be the vocal guy on the sideline, but I was laid up in the hospital. It was just really, really hard on me.

How did you make it through?

MB: Family and teammates. My parents flew up as soon as they heard about it from Texas. They were worried about me because something like that can get serious if it spreads throughout your body. I had to wear a PICC line in my heart. I went from me being pretty darn sick to playing football a week after I got out.

How long did it take you to feel like you were in football shape?

MB: Cincinnati week I started feeling better. I feel really good now. I finally feel not necessarily like the old me, but I feel like I’m headed in the right direction. I’m getting used to the quickness of the game, my football IQ -- it’s like riding a bike but not that easy. The last month was like my training camp. I’ve got that month back, and now I feel like I would have felt at the beginning of the season.
Was that the real Syracuse last week? The real Louisville?

Both teams were able to do what they do best. The Orange had good balance on offense and attacked on defense against West Virginia. The Cardinals pounded the ball and let their defense lead the way against Rutgers.

The result: victories for both.

[+] EnlargeCharlie Strong
AP Photo/Ed ReinkeCan the 3-4 Cardinals, under coach Charlie Strong, beat Syracuse?
Now the two meet Saturday hoping to gain a little momentum in their push for a conference championship. Louisville has won two straight in the series but is still looking for back-to-back conference wins for the first time under Charlie Strong.

Syracuse is hoping to avoid a letdown after a 49-23 win over the Mountaineers, especially with increasing chatter that the Orange could be BCS bound if they play that way each week.

"With a great performance comes great expectations," Syracuse defensive end Mikhail Marinovich said. "People are going to expect to see that every week. We're just not focusing on the game after next or what’s happening in the future. Everybody is focused on the game at hand. Since this coaching staff has been here, they haven’t beaten Louisville. We’re just looking to really focus on the stuff that got us beat last year."

Louisville ran for 160 yards on the Orange last season. Their run game has not been nearly as effective this season, but the Cardinals picked it up against Rutgers as Jeremy Wright became the first 100-yard rusher of the season. Louisville did not exactly score a bushel of points, but the Cardinals did get enough to win.

But perhaps most impressive was the play of the offensive line, which has been banged up all season. The Cardinals entered the game ranked almost near the bottom in the country in sacks, allowing 3.7 per game.

Louisville had given up four or more sacks in four of the first six games. But the Cardinals did not give up one sack for the first time all season with the lineup of center Mario Benavides, guards Jake Smith and John Miller, and tackles Ryan Kessling and Alex Kupper. Quite impressive considering Rutgers went into the game with 24 sacks.

"It definitely helps us on the offensive line in terms of confidence," Benavides said. "It helps across the board on offense because we play better. The quarterbacks have more confidence in us, the wide receivers have more confidence in us, the running backs. We’re starting to grow, but we have to keep growing and not get complacent. As a young team, you take success and you tend to get fat and happy. Our coaches are doing a good job of keeping us grounded."

Though the grind-it-out Louisville style presents a different challenge than the air-it-out West Virginia style, the Syracuse defense also got some much needed momentum from its performance last week.

It helped having defensive end Chandler Jones back. He had two of the team's four sacks to help boost a group that had not gotten as much pressure on the quarterback. That, of course, helps out the rest of the defense and Syracuse posted its largest margin of victory.

"It does give us confidence," Marinovich said. "When we’re firing on all cylinders, there’s no telling what we can do. But it also raises the bar to work harder every day and take our game to the next level."

Big East news and notes

August, 29, 2011
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The Big East football coaches' call wrapped up a little bit ago. UConn coach Paul Pasqualoni was the only coach unable to make it because of disruptions from Hurricane Irene. Here are some news and notes from each coach:

Cincinnati
  • Coach Butch Jones confirmed that he has hired former West Virginia offensive line coach Dave Johnson as an assistant.
  • He also said Deven Drane is going to start at cornerback, with Dominique Battle right behind him. Jones also anticipates playing eight true freshmen.
  • On the makeup of the team this season: “I like the mentality of our football team. We’ve improved our toughness and mental state of mind.”
Louisville
  • Coach Charlie Strong confirmed former Florida cornerback Adrian Bushell has enrolled in school. Bushell played at Coffeyville (Kan.) Community College last season and has only been on campus for two days, so it will take time for him to get up to speed before he can contribute.
  • Strong also said center Mario Benavides, defensive end B.J. Butler and freshman running back Corvin Lamb are out with injuries.
  • The Cardinals also plan on playing all three quarterbacks against Murray State on Thursday. Will Stein will start, but Teddy Bridgewater and Dominique Brown will get in as well.
Pitt
  • The only player out for the game is linebacker Dan Mason.
  • What is Todd Graham most eager to see about this team? “How we handle adversity. I’m anxious to see them get on the field and execute what we’re doing. I feel good about where we’re at. We’ve got an awful lot taught. I'm anxious to see how they respond and get them on the field in game day. I've told them I expect them to be better on game day than they were in the spring and summer.”
  • At his news conference in Pittsburgh, Graham said walk-on freshman Trey Anderson would be the backup at quarterback and Shane Gordon would start at strongside linebacker.
Rutgers
  • Greg Schiano on playing N.C. Central: “I’m not worried about our team overlooking anybody. If you know about the type of season we had last year, we underachieved. We didn’t meet expectations and our entire program can’t wait to play a football game.”
  • Schiano says running back Jeremy Deering should be able to play after missing practice time with a head injury. As for his running back rotation between Savon Huggins, DeAntwan Williams and Jawan Jamison, Schiano said, “Savon is definitely going to play. Depending on what we run the first play of the game, will it be Savon, DeAntwan Williams or Jawan Jamison? I don’t know how it’s going to go. Savon has done a good job in training camp. He’s shown why he is the player that he is. He’s a talented guy, very mature and worked hard to get ready.”
Syracuse
  • Coach Doug Marrone said Phillip Thomas and Shamarko Thomas, and cornerback Keon Lyn are back at practice and would be able to play against Wake Forest on Thursday night.
  • Marrone threw out some stats in his opening remarks. Syracuse is 1-12 against ACC teams since 1996, including 0-8 at home.
  • He also addressed some of the problems with winning home games. Syracuse has not had a winning home record since 2004. The main thing is eliminating the distractions that come with playing at home.
USF
  • Skip Holtz talked a lot about the excitement of playing Notre Dame for his players, and the campus as well. Holtz spoke at a pep rally on campus and felt a buzz around the students, too. “There is a lot of excitement,” he said. “It's fed by not only the way we finished the season last year, but the excitement to play Notre Dame on national television. These are big games for us.”
  • Holtz also said he didn’t expect any players to sit out with injuries.
West Virginia
  • Dana Holgorsen still has not decided on a running back rotation, but said all three freshmen -- Vernard Roberts, Andrew Buie and Dustin Garrison will play Sunday against Marshall.
  • On why he doesn’t use a playbook: “The thought process is we don't want people staring at a piece of paper. We want them to understand it based on film, seeing how it's done right, how it's done wrong and doing it trial and error on your own. We put together a few mini-playbook stuff that's video related. It makes more sense to us."
  • Holgorsen also said Pat Eger is leading the race to start at right tackle. Quinton Spain is the backup to both tackles. He also expects Julian Miller to be cleared for Marshall.
  • On Bruce Irvin being an every-down player: “Whether he can be every down as good as he is on specific pass-rush things, I don't know. Time will tell. He set the bar pretty high being a third-down pass-rusher.”

Big East player rankings: OL

July, 15, 2011
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The team position rankings have wrapped up, so now it is time to tackle another bear of an assignment: player rankings. I am going to start with offensive line. I thought about breaking this off into centers, guards and tackles, but wanted to have 10 at each position. That would leave center lacking. So I am going with all offensive linemen.

[+] EnlargeMoe Petrus
Mark J. Rebilas/US PresswireMoe Petrus has garnered plenty of attention, making the preseason Lombardi, Outland and Rimington award watch lists.
1. Moe Petrus, center, Connecticut. The premier offensive lineman in the league has started every game he has played in headed into his senior season. That makes 39 for those scoring at home. Petrus is on three watch lists this preseason (Lombardi, Outland and Rimington) and he is the heart of a very solid Huskies offensive line.

2. Mike Ryan, tackle, Connecticut. The Huskies have a formidable duo with Petrus and Ryan returning. Ryan is the only player coming back this season who was a first-team All-Big East selection, and is on the watch list for the Lombardi Award. Ryan helped an offensive line that allowed just 15 sacks last season and averaged 175 yards on the ground.

3. Don Barclay, tackle, West Virginia. Another veteran player with plenty of starting experience, Barclay has started 27 games and was a second-team Big East selection last season. Barclay also is on two watch lists (Lomardi and Outland). Here is how valuable he is to the WVU starting line: He was on the field for more than 860 plays last season.

4. Joe Madsen, center, West Virginia. Madsen, Petrus and Mario Benavides make quite a trio of terrific centers in the Big East. Madsen has also started every game he has played in (25), and he only allowed one sack last season. He is so good, he won the team's offensive player of the game honors three times last season.

5. Justin Pugh, tackle, Syracuse. Pugh had quite the impressive debut season, starting all 13 games at left tackle as a redshirt freshman en route to second-team All Big East honors. He might not be huge (6-foot-5, 287 pounds), but he is athletic and should be among the best in the league.

6. Mario Benavides, center, Louisville. Listing three centers among the top six should show you how good the top players at the position are this season. Benavides has started 24 games in his career but could be even better this season after offseason knee surgery.

7. Lucas Nix, tackle, Pitt. Nix should be considered the rock of the Pitt offensive line as he returns for his third season as a starter. With Chris Jacobson moving to center, Nix provides some stability and should be key in helping the Panthers continue their strong ground attack.

8. Alex Hoffman, tackle, Cincinnati. Hoffman has started 25 games and was a second-team All-Big East pick in 2009. Last season, the Bearcats had their share of early struggles, but he did help them get their first 1,000-yard rusher since 2004. He also is on the Lombardi Award watch list.

9. Jeremiah Warren, guard, USF. Warren and Chaz Hine make up the best guard tandem in the Big East. In fact, guard is a position with plenty of question marks throughout the league. But that is not the case for the Bulls. Warren has started 26 games, and he and Hine will help anchor a line with three new starters.

10. Chaz Hine, guard, USF. Hine has a remarkable story, going from walk-on to starter to one of the best guards in the league. Now that he will be in the second year of Skip Holtz's system, he should be even better.

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