Blue Ribbon Preview: Louisville
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Charlie Strong is reminding his players exactly how seriously they should take any preseason predictions -- even those made by esteemed publications like this one. Before the 2011 season, nobody expected the Cardinals to do much of anything, except lose a bunch of games.
Louisville lacked a quarterback. Its offensive line was shaky. There was a decided lack of playmakers throughout the roster. In other words, eighth place looked about right.
Instead, the Cards went 5-2 in the Big East -- tying Cincinnati and West Virginia for first -- and enter this season as just about everybody's favorite to take the conference. Thus Strong's reminder about preseason predictions. If everybody was so wrong last year, what's keeping them from being tragically incorrect in 2012? The worst thing his players can do is accept the early praise as fact and make it prevent them from working as hard as possible to improve.
"They are going to hear it out there," Strong said. "They'll hear it from family and friends. The key for us is to have managed expectations. No one gave us a chance last year, and you didn't buy into it then. Don't buy into it now."
There are several reasons the Cardinals are the favorites this year. The first is the upheaval throughout the Big East. Last year this time, the conference was ready to welcome TCU to the fold and seemed as if it was ready to stabilize itself. Now, TCU is with the Big 12. So is West Virginia. Pitt and Syracuse will most likely leave after this season, and neither of them is preparing for a huge campaign. Temple is on board. Meanwhile, Connecticut, Rutgers, USF and Cincinnati are trying to gather momentum. In other words, in lieu of a big-time favorite, Louisville is it.
That's not a backhanded compliment for the Cardinals, not by any stretch. Strong has it going on in horse country. His recruiting is picking up. The Cards are getting tougher, particularly on defense. And in sophomore QB Teddy Bridgewater, he has a real talent, someone who can help Louisville's offense thrive for several years. Just because Louisville is the king of a weak realm isn't reason to bash the Cards.
Strong may be a quiet guy, but he knows how to win. His Florida pedigree proves that. He was part of the Urban Meyer Show in Gainesville, so he knows what's expected of top teams and how much work goes into building a champion. He was happy with last year's 7-5 regular season because it kept the Cardinals in the postseason, but he knows that the type of program he wants to captain isn't close to ready in Louisville.
"We're nowhere near where we should be," he said. "We have a lot of work to do."
The good news is that the message is being delivered. The Cardinals may not be an SEC-quality contender yet, but they are improving. More importantly, they are ingesting and processing what Strong wants them to know and do.
"They're buying into it," he said. "In order for someone to buy into something, you have to have a level of success. We have small signs, but we're still growing as a football team. We're still learning."
Strong would like it if those around the program took the same interest in it his players appear to be taking. In late March, as Louisville went through its spring drills, the school's men's hoops team was making its Final Four run. In a state like Kentucky, where basketball rules, the local media was particularly distracted by the round ball. That didn't make Strong too happy. So, he banished the local media from practice for more than a week. He wanted the people to understand that the football program at Louisville was not going to sit in the back seat of the car, even if people thought of the place as a "basketball school."
"I wasn't trying to flare up anybody," Strong said. "I was just saying, 'Look, there are two sports. Cover them.' "
If the "experts" are right, there should be plenty of reason to pay attention to the Cardinals this season. The Big East title is a definite possibility, and it's time for Louisville to get after it. If that means disregarding the preseason praise, so be it. They can start listening at the end of the year, when the hosannas could be loud and clear.
Head Coach: Charlie Strong (Central Arkansas '82)
Record at school: 14-12 (2 years)
Career record: 14-12 (2 years)
• Clint Hurtt (Miami '01) Associate Head Coach/Defensive Line/Recruiting Coordinator
• Shawn Watson (Southern Illinois '82) Offensive Coordinator/QBs
• Vance Bedford (Texas '82) Defensive Coordinator
• Dave Borbeley (DePauw '81) Run Game Coordinator/Offensive Line
• Kenny Carter (The Citadel '90) Running Backs/Special Teams
• Ron Dugans (Florida State '99) Wide Receivers
• Brian Jean-Mary (Appalachian State '98) Linebackers
• Sherrone Moore (Oklahoma '08) Tight Ends
• Tommy Restivo (Georgetown '06) Defensive Backs
Last year at this time, the QB job was expected to go to Will Stein (5-10, 183), who was something of a question mark. Then Teddy Bridgewater (6-3, 208) emerged. He started 11 games, was chosen the Big East Rookie of the Year and provided stability at the position.
Bridgewater completed 64.5 percent of his passes, almost unheard of for a true freshman, for 2,129 yards and 14 touchdowns. Bridgewater also proved he could run with the ball and scored four times. He has good size, a strong arm and plenty of potential. Although he did throw 12 interceptions, Bridgewater had a fabulous debut. Now, it's time for him to master the position. He must make better decisions, learn more about the offense and get better at reading defenses.
"He has become more of a student of the game," Strong said. "Last year, he was young, and he was pressed into the position. He has a lot to learn. He has to learn about defenses, and he has to learn his strengths and weaknesses."
"He has a ton of physical skills -- size, speed and strength."
Stein, a senior, started three games last year and was hardly overmatched. He connected on 61.9 percent of his throws for 620 yards, five scores and one pick. Though not as physically gifted as Bridgewater, his experience matters, and he has a good grasp of the offense.
"Teddy Bridgewater is who he is because of how hard Will Stein pushed him," Strong said. "If something happened to Teddy, I feel comfortable with Will Stein."
Expect 6-5, 200-pound true freshman Will Gardner (Coffee County HS/Douglas, Ga.), who missed his senior season because of an ACL tear, to be ready for fall practice. He has a good grasp of the game but needs to get back into football shape and improve his arm strength.
Some teams prefer to have a running back who can handle 25 carries every Saturday, but the Cardinals have a passel of ball carriers who can do just about everything. If Louisville is going to do this by committee, it would appear as if the team has a committee capable of getting some stuff done.
"We don't have enough balls or reps for all the guys we have," Strong said.
Junior Dominique Brown (6-2, 226) is the top returning rusher, having gained 533 yards last year. He's a power back who doesn't mind contact. Classmate Jeremy Wright (5-11, 205) gained 334 yards last year and is more of a shifty runner, capable of making some good cuts, while junior Senorise Perry (6-0, 198) is a slasher.
The X factor is redshirt freshman Corvin Lamb (5-11, 216), who can knock some people over but also run past them.
"Each back has his own personality, and I feel comfortable with them running the ball," Strong said.
The one thing you can count on is that the Cardinals will take to the ground. Even though Bridgewater had a strong freshman campaign, putting too much on him is unwise. So, Louisville will try to establish the run first.
"Our offense is play-action, so we're going to run the football," Strong said. "We want to attack the seams of the defense."
One of the benefits of having a young crew of receivers in a given season is that they will be more experienced the next year. That's the case at Louisville, which returns last year's top two pass catchers, sophomores Eli Rogers (5-10, 185) and Michaelee Harris (6-2, 192), and has a corps of talent behind them.
Rogers caught 41 passes and scored once last season. He's a possession man who does well in the slot. "He'll make a bunch of catches and is more quick than fast," Strong said. Harris snared 37 balls last year and scored two TDs. He is also particularly comfortable inside.
When the Cardinals look for speed, they turn to sophomore DeVante Parker (6-3, 204), who averaged a robust 16.2 yards on his 18 catches and scored six times, junior Damian Copeland (6-1, 188) and senior Andrell Smith (6-4, 219), who gained 18.8 yards on his 11 catches. "All three of them are fast enough to stretch the defense," Strong said.
The Cardinals like to use the tight end, and the loss of Josh Chichester (28 catches) was big. Strong said senior Nate Nord (6-5, 250) had "an outstanding spring" but "needs to get stronger." He caught only four passes last year.
Junior Chris White (6-4, 240) should be a solid pass catcher. Strong hopes 6-5, 235-pound junior college addition Ryan Hubbell (Iowa Western CC/Marion HS/Council Bluffs, Iowa) will give the Cardinals much-needed depth and production at the position.
Even though the Cardinals listed three sophomores among their five O-line starters, Strong is quite happy with the unit. Like the wideout crew, those second-year players were regulars last year, giving the Cards some continuity up front.
Jake Smith (6-3, 314) was a freshman All-America last year and should have a big year at left guard, while fellow sophomore John Miller (6-2, 313) can roughhouse at the other guard spot. It will be interesting to watch 6-4, 340-pound sophomore Jamon Brown, who has scads of potential.
There isn't a lot of proven depth up front, although redshirt freshmen Ryan Mack (6-4, 308) and Aaron Epps (6-7, 274) could become solid backups at tackle, along with sophomore Chris Acosta (6-3, 289).
Because the Cardinals return three starters from last year's bowl game, they are in pretty good shape here. U of L limited opponents to 3.0 yards per carry last year and registered a respectable 33 sacks, so it was a good season up front. But the Cards must improve. "We need to get stronger up front and continue to develop," Strong said.
Strong is happy with the end situation. Junior Marcus Smith (6-4, 256) and sophomore B.J. Dubose (6-4, 273) form a solid starting tandem, while junior Lorenzo Mauldin (6-4, 240) is a talented third man in the rotation. Smith led the team with 5.5 sacks last year, and Dubose had 22 tackles. Junior B.J. Butler (6-2, 275) will also see action outside.
Junior Roy Philon (6-3, 290), who made 36 tackles, including six behind the line, in 2011 is the mainstay at tackle, while junior Brandon Dunn (6-3, 285) and hulking Jamaine Brooks (6-4, 330) will rotate at nose tackle.
Don't be surprised if 6-0, 310-pound freshman DeAngelo Brown (Savannah Christian Prep/Savannah, GA) finds his way into the fray also. ESPN rated him No. 41 among class of 2012 tackles.
Although the Cardinals have some talent here and import some fine young players, they will definitely miss last year's leading tackler, middle man Dexter Heyman, who made 90 stops, including 16 behind the line. "Losing Dexter is going to hurt," Strong said. "He was the leader of the defense."
Strong wants junior Preston Brown (6-2, 257), who made 84 tackles on the outside last year, to be the man in the middle and the person who takes the defense forward.
"He has size and speed and anything you're looking for in the position," Strong said. "What Preston has got to do is take it upon himself to run the defense."
Senior Daniel Brown (6-1, 234) is a two-year starter for the Cards and made 39 tackles last year. But Strong wants more from him, too.
"He has to step up and become more productive," Strong said. The other starter should be sophomore Deiontrez Mount (6-5, 243), who flashed talent in a limited role last year. "He's still learning, but the thing I like about him is that he's so athletic," Strong said. "He can rush the passer, and he's getting stronger. He plays with so much energy."
Depth will come from 6-1, 229-pound freshman Keith Brown (Norland HS/Miami, Fla.), who arrived on campus in time for spring drills and made an immediate impression with his ability to get off blocks and reach the ball carrier in the middle.
Junior George Durant (6-0, 234) will see some time outside, and 6-0, 200-pound freshman James Burgess (Homestead Senior HS/Homestead, Fla.), another early arrival, is a four-star recruit with great speed who was rated No. 17 in the nation by ESPN.
Another freshman with a chance to play this year is 6-3, 228-pound Nick Dawson (Phillip O. Berry Academy of Technology/Charlotte, N.C.), a playmaker on the outside.
This is a good group, led by a pair of first-team All-Big East selections and some good young talent that will be fortified this year by the arrivals of several highly regarded freshmen.
Junior Hakeem Smith (6-1, 180) was second on the team last year with 84 tackles. He also broke up nine passes, a team high.
"I always tell Hakeem that he's one of the most underrated players on our defense," Strong said. "He does more than anyone out there He doesn't seek attention. He just lines up and plays."
The other all-conference performer is senior corner Adrian Bushell (5-11, 184), who made 50 tackles last year. Although he received acclaim in '11, Strong wants more from him. "I'd like him to become more focused," he said. "He has a great ability to lock people down, but he has to be more alert.
That's not the problem with sophomore corner Andrew Johnson (5-10, 178) who impressed Strong last year. Johnson has the speed and smarts to develop into a first-rate coverage man.
"The thing about him is that he plays within himself and within his abilities," Strong said. "He knows how much cushion to give up. Each week, he studies the receivers he's going to play against and knows their abilities."
The free safety spot belongs to sophomore Calvin Pryor (6-1, 210), who played a lot toward the end of last year. He made 43 tackles and picked off a pair of passes. Strong likes his potential but needs Pryor to be more consistent.
The entire secondary has to get better against the pass. Rival passers completed 60 percent of their throws last year, and the Cards picked off just 10 passes.
The depth is extremely young. Sophomore Terell Floyd (5-10, 201) and redshirt freshman Charles Gaines (5-11, 187) are cornerback reserves, and they'll fight it out with freshmen Brandon Snell (Carol City HS/Miami Gardens, Fla.), a 5-11, 170-pounder, and 5-11, 163-pound Devontre Parnell (Fairfield Central HS/Winnsboro, S.C.), both of whom are highly regarded.
Sophomore Kamal Hogan (6-0, 209) will back up Pryor, and redshirt freshman Jermaine Reve (6-0, 182) is behind Smith, although freshman Gerod Holliman (6-0, 185) will battle for a chance to get on the field.
The Cardinals are in fairly good shape here, although they do have some upgrading to do.
The trio of Wright, Bushell and Perry is top shelf when it comes to bringing back kicks. They all have the speed to go the distance, and Bushell did once last year. But the Louisville punt return game needs to get better. Eli Rogers (6.8-yard average) and Radcliff (4.4) must improve those numbers.
And while the Cards were excellent at shutting down opposing punt return men, they were not able to contain enemy kick returners, who averaged 24.8 yards every time they touched the ball. Expect the increased talent via recruiting to help the special teams units.
The Cardinals need some youngsters to step in here, after four-year regular Chris Philpott (12 of 18 in 2011) completed his eligibility. Redshirt freshmen John Wallace (6-0, 188) and Andrew Fletcher (5-8, 179) battled it out during the spring, with Wallace holding a slight edge. Wallace made 11 of 14 kicks as a prep senior, with a long of 50 yards, and made a 52-yarder during the spring game.
Don't be surprised if freshman Joshua Appleby (6-3, 230) inserts himself into the fray when he arrives on campus in August. He has a big leg and a lot of potential. ESPN rated him the No. 30 kicker in the nation.
Freshman kicker Joshua Appleby can also punt.
The Cardinals continue to do well in Florida, a very good place to do well.
They fortified their defense by going heavily on linebackers, with Keith Brown, Burgess and Dawson, and defensive backs (Snell, Parnell, Holliman). It's possible Appleby could take over the kicking chores, while DeAngelo Brown is expected to provide some help in the middle of the defensive line.
Hubbell won't be a star, but he will provide depth at a position -- tight end -- that needs it, while 6-5, 345-pound Abraham Garcia (University HS/Fort Lauderdale, Fla.) is a road-grading tackle who was rated a four-star prospect by ESPN, and 5-9, 220-pound Brandon Radcliff (Miami Norland HS/Miami, Fla.) has the potential to be an every-down back. ESPN rated him No. 30 in the nation at his position.
Bridgewater isn't going anywhere, but Will Gardner has the potential to be a fine starter down the road, provided he does the necessary work. He, too, was rated No. 30 at his position by ESPN.
BLUE RIBBON ANALYSIS
Some might consider Louisville's favorite status in the Big East a product of the conference's instability and the relative weakness of the competition, and they would be right. But the Cardinals are not ascending merely because everybody else is struggling. Louisville's talent level is improving, and Strong and his staff know what they are doing.
The offense needs to become more dynamic, and with the return of Bridgewater, a versatile collection of backs and some young playmakers, that has a big chance of happening. The offensive line must stabilize some, but the talent exists for that to happen.
Louisville has the pieces to form a strong defense, but the Cards must understand that merely doing one's job doesn't cut it at the highest levels. If Louisville wants to win a championship, its veterans -- like Preston Brown, Smith and Bushell -- must understand that they have to make big plays, and a lot of them.
This could be a big year for Louisville on many different levels. First, the football program has the potential to take a big step forward. Strong is making that happen. More importantly, the current unsettled climate of conference membership could well have U of L moving to a new home in the coming years. No matter where that is, Strong is taking measures to make sure the football team will fit into any new environment quite well.
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