2013 Record: 12-1 (7-1 AAC)
Scheme: The Cardinals have gone from having one of the best QBs in college football to having one of the best offensive minds as the head coach. Hiring Bobby Petrino to replace Charlie Strong means a definite shift in scheme, but it also ensures that despite the loss of Teddy Bridgewater, Louisville will likely be flying high on offense once again.
The Cardinals were quite good last year on offense, but also inconsistent as Kentucky, Rutgers, Houston, and Memphis all held Louisville to 27 or fewer points. I’m not sure many teams will keep Petrino’s offense under wraps, or at least not teams that were as inferior, on paper, as many of those four were last year. Whereas Strong and his OC, Shawn Watson, ran a pro-style offense that was all about ball control and efficiency, Petrino runs a pro-style offense that is much more predicated on attacking the defense. And Petrino will throw the kitchen sink at defenses, mixing 5 wide, two tight end, and pistol sets, power running, play action, and lots and lots of crossing routes. You have to be on your toes. And know this: Petrino places a lot on his QB and WRs as this offense features a lot of reads by each in response to coverage’s. It can lead to mistakes, but it can also devastate defenses.
Quarterbacks: Look, Teddy Bridgewater was a phenomenal college QB. The guy threw for nearly 10,000 yards and over 70 TDs against fewer than 25 interceptions in three seasons as the starter. He was efficient, cool and calm in the pocket, and just darn good. He isn’t easily replaced, but Petrino is a QB guru and I think anyone who thinks the new QB won’t put up big numbers in this offense is crazy. Would Louisville be better with Bridgewater? Absolutely. Will they fall off a cliff without him? Doubtful.
Sophomore Will Gardner (8 of 12, 112 yards, 2 TDs) was the backup last year and exited spring entrenched as the starter. Throwing for over 500 yards and 4 touchdowns in the spring game certainly didn’t hurt his cause, but Gardner won Petrino over with his size (6’5, 230), arm strength, and smarts. I’m sure Gardner will make his share of mistakes, but I also think he’ll put up some big numbers too. Senior Brett Nelson, redshirt frosh Kyle Bolin, and true freshman Reggie Bonnafon are battling for the backup job. JC transfer Pat Thomas is a dual-threat guy who might be used in situational packages. Some think Thomas may win the starting job, but I think Gardner fits Petrino’s offense better and the coaches have raved about Gardner all offseason.
Running Backs: Petrino is known as a passing guy, but he annually churns out power running games that utilize a couple running backs. He has no shortage of options this year. Senior Dominique Brown (825 yds, 5.1 avg, 8 TDs, 24 receptions, 228 yds, TD) seems like the perfect fit for Petrino’s offense: big and strong enough to run the power game, but also a good receiver. Senior Michael Dyer is likely a name that many remember. By way of Auburn and Arkansas State, Dyer (223 yds, 5.1 avg, 2 TDs) is super talented, but has had off-field issues. The coaching staff praised him all spring and he looks like he might have a big impact in his final collegiate season. Junior Corvin Lamb, sophomore Brandon Radcliff, and true freshman L.J. Scott will battle for carries as well.
Wide Receivers/Tight Ends: The Cardinal will waltz into the ACC and have one of the conference’s best pass-catching corps right off the bat. Senior WR DeVante Parker and senior TE Gerald Christian are the bell cows and future NFL draft picks. Parker (55 recs, 885 yds, 12 TDs) is a playmaker with great size and strength. He’s a matchup nightmare for most corners. Christian (28 recs, 426 yds, 4 TDs) isn’t a great blocker, but he is one of the best receiving tight ends in the country and should really flourish in Petrino’s system, which often utilizes the position.
Those guys are the stars, but this unit is deep. Senior Eli Rogers (44 recs, 536 yds, 4 TDs) is very quick and has great hands. Senior Robert Clark (25 recs, 219 yds, TD) is experienced and dependable. Classmate Michaelee Harris (15 recs, 195 yds, 2 TDs) has struggled with injuries, but has definite talent. Senior Kai De La Cruz (15 recs, 271 yds, 3 TDs) is a home run threat. Sophomore James Quick (6 recs, 73 yds) is perhaps the most talented of the group beyond Parker and got his feet wet last year as a true freshman. He has a high ceiling, but will still probably be a role player. Senior Matt Milton has talent and size (6’5, 205) but hasn’t put it all together yet. If he provides anything, it’s a bonus.
Depth at tight end is not as good after Ryan Hubbell, last year’s backup, graduated. That means little-used sophomore Keith Towbridge will likely be the top guy off the bench. He’ll face competition from true freshman Micky Crum. If needed, Lamar Atkins, who is more of a traditional fullback, could be used here or as a blocking H-back.
Offensive Line: Louisville has a hole to fill at RG, but they return three guys who made the All-AAC team last year as well as three other players with starting experience so this unit should be solid. Depth took a hit when three backups transferred after Strong’s departure, but the starting five is probably one of the best in the ACC, experienced and reliable.
Four spots are locked down. Senior center Jake Smith and senior LG John Miller both have more than 30 career starts and are very good. Senior LT Jamon Brown can be beaten by speed rushers due to his size (6’6, 350) but he more frequently engulfs defenders. Junior RT Ryan Mack started all 13 games last year and has steadily improved. The question spot is RG. Abraham Garcia was the leader to start, but he decided to transfer in May. Senior Chris Acosta has 3 career starts and is the frontrunner as of now, but he is small and has a low ceiling. Sophomores Joe Manley and Pedro Sibiea are more talented, but have little experience. Depth at the other positions is also inexperienced and injuries could really cripple this unit.
Scheme: Charlie Strong’s background is on defense and it showed last year, with the Cardinals allowing just 12.2 PPG and an astounding 251 yards per game, which led the nation. With Strong’s exit comes a new philosophy on this side of the ball too. Gone is Strong’s 4-3 and in comes Todd Grantham, formerly the DC at Georgia, and his 3-4. Grantham has an interesting system in that his 3-4 often morphs into a 5-2 on running downs, with the two OLBs lining up more as DEs. On passing downs, he favors a 2-4-5 that will throw lots of different blitzes (it could be LBs, safeties, or CBs) from different places. You’ll still see attacking, but only time will tell if Grantham can maintain what Strong established.
(Here I’ll add my two cents: I grew up a Georgia fan so I’ve watched the Bulldogs a lot under Grantham. I thought the Bulldogs vastly underachieved last year on defense and I also thought Grantham’s defenses were undisciplined. His scheme is interesting in that it can confuse opposing QBs because 4 to 5 guys will almost always be rushing the passer, but you don’t know which 4 or 5. That being said, I think Mark Richt was totally okay with letting Grantham go [as far as I know Richt never tried to convince Grantham to stay] and Grantham was okay with leaving. Honestly, I’m not sure Petrino made a great hire here.)
Defensive Line: This unit was pretty well crushed by departures, with the top four defensive tackles and the top defensive end graduating. Only two guys who’ve received significant playing time return and this unit is short on depth.
On the plus side, Louisville appears to at least have three decent starters at defensive end. Junior Sheldon Rankins (15 tackles, 4 for loss, 3 sacks) showed flashes as a backup last year and could be the leader of the line. Senior B.J. Dubose (16 tackles, 4 for loss, 1.5 sacks) is a career backup, but the coaches think he can step up into an increased role. Redshirt freshman James Hearns is currently listed as an OLB, but I think there is a good chance he moves down to DE. If not, the backups will be redshirt frosh Kyle Shortridge, junior Pio Vatuvei, and true freshman Terry Ramsey.
The down side, even more than end, is at NT, where sophomore DeAngelo Brown and redshirt frosh Johnny Richardson are literally the only non-walk-ons on the roster. Both are 300+ pound guys, but Brown has not played since 2012 due to injury and Richardson has never seen the field so both are unproven. They are the weak point on the defense until proven otherwise.
Linebackers: As bad as the line could be, the LB corps could be equally good. Former end Lorenzo Mauldin should flourish at OLB and ILB James Burgess is a keeper. Mauldin (40 tackles, 12 for loss, 9.5 sacks) strikes me as a Jarvis Jones-type in this defense, although perhaps without the natural skills that Jones had. Still, I’d expect Mauldin to wreak havoc. Burgess (72 tackles, 9 for loss, 1 sack, 4 pass breakups, 1 int) is tough against the run and also solid against the pass and should also flourish.
The other two starting spots and backup jobs are up for grabs, but the Cardinals have recruited well here and have potential. Senior Deiontrez Mount and junior Keith Brown are expected to be the other starters, with Mount on the outside and Brown inside. Mount (9 tackles, 1.5 for loss) is moving from DE, where he was a career backup. His potential is probably the most limited of the starters, but his size should help against the run. Brown was limited to 4 games last year due to injury, but he has definite potential if he remains healthy. Depth on the outside will be provided by redshirt frosh Stacy Thomas, a former four star recruit, junior Trevon Young, sophomore Lamar Atkins, and possibly true freshman Henry Famurewa. The aforementioned Hearns could help here too. On the inside, Louisville has sophomore Keith Kelsey (24 tackles), sophomore Nick Dawson (14 tackles, 3.5 for loss, 1 sack), and redshirt frosh Lyn Clark. Thomas and Dawson are two guys that many think have high upside.
Secondary: This unit is a definite mixed bag. Louisville has at least three solid options at CB and few young guys who could help there too. Safety, though, is a whole other story. Both starters, including Calvin Pryor, who was one of the top safeties in the country, graduated and while two starters may emerge, depth is almost non-existent at this point.
The good news is at CB. Junior Charles Gaines (22 tackles, 7 pass breakups, 5 ints) is an outstanding cover guy who also makes plays. Senior Terrell Floyd (47 tackles, 2 for loss, 3 pass breakups, 4 ints) is no slouch and might be better all-around. Both Gaines and Floyd have NFL potential. Senior Andrew Johnson is a bit undersized, but provides nice cover off the bench. Sophomores Kevin Houchins and Devontre Parnell are the other options, but have limited experience.
The safety spots are worrisome. Juniors Jermaine Reve and Gerod Holliman will definitely be the starters. Reve (23 tackles, 2.5 for loss) actually started 5 games last year at FS but needs to ramp up his production and playmaking ability. Holliman (16 tackles, 3 pass breakups) will man the SS spot after starting twice last year and appearing in nine other contests. He is a physical specimen who came with high accolades, but has yet to reach is potential. Redshirt freshmen Chucky Williams, Richard Benjamin, and Terrence Ross are the top backups.
Special Teams: These units look solid. Junior kicker John Wallace hit on 20 of 24 last year and has decent range. Senior punter Ryan Johnson averaged 41.2 yards per punt. Charles Gaines is a solid kick returner. The punt return unit was mediocre last year, but with a roster full of skill talent you imagine that could improve.
Schedule: Welcome to the ACC! Your reward? Opening with UM on Labor Day night. Sure, Louisville blasted the Hurricanes in their bowl game last year, but this is a whole new year, although the game is at home and winnable. The rest of the slate is manageable. Getting FSU on a Thursday night in Louisville is about as good as that will get and although Louisville faces tricky road dates at Clemson and Notre Dame, you can easily find wins in this schedule.
Overall: Where the rubber will really meet the road is about midway through the season. Several Louisville players admitted that in the AAC they basically only needed to get up for one or two games per year and the rest they somewhat were able to sleep walk through. That won’t be the case in the majority of ACC games. Even Petrino has admitted the jump to the ACC is a definite leap in competition. Some of that may be lip service to make the move sound better, but a lot of it is based in reality as the AAC is a pretty mediocre football conference (insert ACC mediocrity joke here). So question #1 is likely whether the Cardinal can ramp up their game in a harder conference. Mid-major powers such as TCU and Utah have seen giant dips in their wins since joining Power 5 conferences. Will Louisville be next?
I’m going to say no (at least for this season) for two reasons. First, the offense. Not only is Petrino a great offensive mind, but he has some real nice pieces and parts to work with. Yes, Louisville will be breaking in a new QB, but Gardner has the physical makeup to thrive in Petrino’s offense. More importantly, he has a good group of runners, an excellent WR/TE corps, and a solid, experienced offensive line. Gardner doesn’t need to be Superman with the weapons he has at his disposal. I think that adds up to a productive offense. Second, the schedule is such that the Cards should really win 8 games, at minimum. The FSU, Clemson, and Notre Dame games will be tough to win, but other than that, the schedule is pretty favorable.
The big cause for concern is less Gardner (or whoever the QB is) and, rather, the defense. A new system is being installed under a new coordinator. The defensive line is being reinvented, with all new starters and little depth. The LB corps has potential, but is also expecting some guys who have been backups to step forward. Louisville has two very good starters at CB, but the rest of the secondary is worrisome.
Louisville will give up points, but they’ll likely score some too. I’m going to say the jump to the ACC ends up being tougher than Louisville expected, but I still think they go 8-4 and finish 3rd in the division to FSU and Clemson. Not a bad start, all things considered.