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The Countdown

A bottom-to-top assessment of the F.B.S. landscape heading into the 2012 season.

The Countdown

No. 79: Louisville

One school that may ultimately benefit from T.C.U.’s move to the Big East is Louisville, and bear with me as I try to connect the dots. No one school will benefit on the field: T.C.U. is going to hit the ground running in the weakest of our B.C.S. conferences, and no one current Big East program has what it takes to combat what the Horned Frogs bring to the table. But their inclusion in this party will give the conference a prestige boost, which is good news for all involved. But Louisville, with its sizable athletic budget, is a program that can make hay with the recruiting inroads that may develop in Texas — Syracuse, Rutgers, Connecticut and Cincinnati won’t feel a difference, but perhaps Louisville’s blend of promise, playing time, facilities and the financial wherewithal to make ends meet can combine to make its presence felt in the most talent-rich state in the country. So if we’re going to look at the glass half full, that’s a positive.

Conference
Big East

Location
Louisville, Ky.

Nickname
Cardinals

Returning starters
9 (3 offense, 6 defense)

Last year’s ranking
No. 84

2010 record
(7-6, 3-4)

Last year’s
re-ranking

No. 62

2011 schedule

  • Sept. 1
    Murray St.
  • Sept. 9
    F.I.U.
  • Sept. 17
    Kentucky
  • Oct. 1
    Marshall
  • Oct. 8
    at U.N.C.
  • Oct. 15
    at Cincinnati
  • Oct. 21
    Rutgers
  • Oct. 29
    Syracuse
  • Nov. 5
    at West Virginia
  • Nov. 12
    Pittsburgh
  • Nov. 19
    at Connecticut
  • Nov. 25
    at U.S.F.

Last year’s prediction

My first concern: a lack of talent. My second: while the offense returns a talented core, the defense lost most of last season’s contributors, particularly in the back seven. My third concern: Louisville will implement new schemes on both sides of the ball. How will Charlie Strong address each issue?  I can’t avoid the feeling that this will be a rebuilding season for Louisville, even if the team won’t suffer any letdown in the win column. Strong has his work cut out for him. Unlike his predecessor, who had every advantage when taking over in 2007, Strong has inherited a mess. Give him time — as Louisville is sure to do — and better days are ahead. This year? Think no more than five wins, with no more than two in conference play.

2010 recap

In a nutshell Charlie Strong’s biggest impact may have been felt off the field — not to diminish his impact between the white lines, however. Louisville was a beaten program prior to his arrival, thanks to his predecessor’s poor work, and this batch of Cardinals desperately needed to believe in itself; cue Strong, who not only talked the talk from Sunday to Friday but delivered on Saturday, leading the Cardinals back to bowl play after a three-year absence. Perhaps the most tangible difference between Strong and Steve Kragthorpe was seen in Louisville’s competitiveness: five losses by a touchdown or less with the same team, by and large, that slumped to only four wins the season before. I thought Strong was the right man for the job at the right time, but I truly didn’t think he’d have U.L. back in bowl play in his debut campaign. Unfortunately, the immediate taste of success raises expectations. Now, in 2011, with a large senior class gone and not many pieces left to work with, Strong has a whole new set of tasks ahead of him.

High point I have a three-way tie. Option one is a 26-0 whitewashing on eventual conference champion Connecticut on Oct. 23: utter domination in all facets of the game. The second is a 40-13 win over Rutgers in the season finale, which clinched bowl eligibility. The third is a Beef O’Brady’s Bowl victory over slightly favored Southern Mississippi: Louisville escaped with a three-point win, taking the lead with about seven minutes left and holding off the Golden Eagles down the stretch.

Low point Another loss to Kentucky, Louisville’s fourth straight in the series, opened the year on a sour note. An overtime loss to South Florida in mid-November was a downer, as was a 20-3 defeat at the hands of Pittsburgh two weeks before; that was really the only game where U.L. was outclassed.

Tidbit A third of Louisville’s 2011 schedule will be played on weekday evenings. It begins with Murray State on Thursday, Sept. 1; bless the Cardinals for starting early, pushing the opening night of college football to the Thursday prior to the typical Saturday kickoff. The Cardinals host Florida International the following Friday and host Rutgers on Wednesday, Oct. 21. The regular season finale, on Friday, Nov. 25, will send Louisville to South Florida with bowl hopes potentially on the line.

Former players in the N.F.L.

27 K David Akers (Philadelphia), TE Gary Barnidge (Carolina), FB Brock Bolen (Jacksonville), WR Deion Branch (New England), QB Brian Brohm (Buffalo), RB Michael Bush (Oakland), QB Hunter Cantwell (Baltimore), WR Patrick Carter (Miami), WR Harry Douglas (Atlanta), LB Elvis Dumervil (Denver), OT Renardo Foster (St. Louis), CB William Gay (Pittsburgh), OT Breno Giacomini (Seattle), WR Trent Guy (Carolina), S Antoine Harris (Philadelphia), LB Brandon Johnson (Cincinnati), CB Chris Johnson (Oakland), DT Amobi Okoye (Houston), CB Johnny Patrick (New Orleans), RB Bilal Powell (New York Jets), QB Chris Redman (Atlanta), S Kerry Rhodes (Arizona), OG Jason Spitz (Green Bay), OT Bryan Stingily (Tennessee), FB Joe Tronzo (Tennessee), CB Woodny Turenne (New York Giants), C Eric Wood (Buffalo).

Arbitrary top five list

Baltimore Bullets from 1963-73
1. PF Wes Unseld (1968-73).
2. PG Earl Monroe (1967-71).
3. SF Gus Johnson (1963-73).
4. PF Elvin Hayes (1972-73).
5. C Walt Bellamy (1963-65).

Coaching

Charlie Strong (Central Arkansas ’82), 7-6 after his first season with the Cardinals. A very nice start for the far-too-long-overlooked coach. His major college coaching career begin at Florida in 1988, when he began the first of two seasons as the team’s outside linebackers coach. After spending one season at Mississippi, Strong returned to U.F. as the defensive ends coach (1991-93). He was promoted to assistant head coach in 1994, but left for Notre Dame in 1995. After four seasons (1995-98) as the defensive line coach – working alongside Urban Meyer – Strong earned another promotion, moving to South Carolina as its defensive coordinator. While with the Gamecocks, Strong’s defense went from allowing 25.3 points per game in 1999 to fewer than 19.2 in each of the next two seasons; not surprisingly, U.S.C. improved from 0-11 in 1999 to a combined 17-7 from 2000-1. Strong leaped at the opportunity to return to Florida in 2003 as the team’s defensive coordinator, and added the title of assistant head coach upon Meyer’s arrival in 2005. While the Florida offense earned the headlines, it was the Florida defense that separated it from the rest of college football over his final five seasons in Gainesville. The Gators went 52-10 over that span, winning 13 games three times (2006, 2008-9) and a pair of national championships. Outside of an atypically poor output in 2007 (25.5 points per game), the Gators allowed fewer than 19 points per game in each of Strong’s final five seasons as coordinator, culminating in the nation’s fourth-best defense in the nation in 2009. With this resume, one can only ask why it took so long for Strong to finally get his chance as the face of a program. Other program’s hesitation has been Louisville’s gain.

Players to watch

The quarterback job belongs to Will Stein, a former walk-on whose lack of physical ability is overshadowed by the leadership qualities he brings to an inexperienced offense. Stein has taken snaps over the past two years, starting a pair of games in 2009 and serving as a backup behind the since-departed Adam Froman and Justin Burke, giving him the sort of experience – albeit a limited dose – not seen elsewhere at the position. So the job is his, though perhaps not for long: incoming freshman Teddy Bridgewater is the future at the position, and that he was on campus for spring practices bodes well for his chances at seeing the field in 2011. In fact, that Bridgewater is more of a dual-threat means he can be used in certain packages, getting his feet wet in advance of his eventual coronation as Louisville’s starter.

Don’t let the name fool you: Louisville says it runs the spread and has a spread coordinator in Mike Sanford, but the offense wants to run the ball down the opposition’s throat – most defensive-minded coaches want it no other way. The offense will then rely on a healthy Victor Anderson, now a senior, to carry the load in the running game following the departure of Bilal Powell, last year’s leading rusher. Anderson was a breakout star in 2008 as a freshman but has seen little time since due to injury. If healthy, he’s one of the Big East’s best; his 2008 season proved that. He’s also a big-play threat, perhaps giving U.L. two dangerous options on the ground to go with sophomore Jeremy Wright (327 yards, 4 scores last fall). The offensive line is a concern, but if that group rounds into form, U.L. can keep the ground game rolling with this pair – again, only if Anderson is ready to go for 12 games.

The Cardinals like to spread the ball around in the passing game: six players made at least 18 grabs a year ago, though three have since exhausted their eligibility. That includes all-Big East tight end Cameron Graham, who paced the team with 40 grabs. His replacement, Josh Chichester (22 receptions for 317 yards and 5 scores), isn’t going to knock anyone around in the running game; as a receiver, however, and when he catches the ball, he’s a big threat. The Cardinals also bring back a pair of options coming off stellar 2010 seasons in former JUCO transfer Josh Bellamy (29 for 401, 5 scores) and junior Andrell Smith (25 for 377), both of whom should be better with another year of experience. The depth chart is also littered with freshmen and sophomores; one incoming freshman, Florida product Eli Rogers, arrives as a potential difference-maker.

Strong knows defense, from top to bottom, all positions, but none more than the defensive line. He’s a wizard with defensive linemen, dating back to his initial stint at Florida, and loves nothing more than having seven or eight linemen to rotate in and out of games on a whim. This trend will continue in 2011, as while the Cardinals lack extensive game experience there is no dearth of bodies at Strong’s disposal.

One player on the move up front is senior Greg Scruggs (24 tackles, 2 sacks), who spent most of last season inside but should move back to end in 2011. That move became a luxury after several young tackles stepped up a year ago, and gives U.L. an experienced hand to team with the rising sophomores already poised for significant snaps. One is B.J. Butler (23 tackles, 2.5 sacks), who missed the spring due to injury but should be fine come September; another is Marcus Smith, a one-game starter in 2010. Senior William Savoy brings eight career starts into the fall, giving U.L. another option to round out the rotation.

The interior of the line looks to be in its best shape in years – credit Strong for getting after it in recruiting, helping the Cardinals compile at least four tackles capable of taking snaps against high-level competition. For sophomores Brandon Dunn and Roy Philon, last year’s struggles will yield finer days in 2011 and beyond. It’s the development of this pair that allowed U.L. to even consider moving Scruggs moving back outside. Junior Randy Salmon can play over the nose or as a substitute for Dunn, increasing his importance. Strong and his staff are very high on redshirt freshman Jamaine Brooks, who is line for a major role.

The entire front seven is pretty good – as up front, perhaps the best it has been since the Cardinals were racking up wins under Bobby Petrino. Again, Strong has performed miracles. The group is led by senior Dexter Heyman (48 tackles, 4.5 for loss), who can stay on the outside or move to middle linebacker, where he spent most of the spring. Reigning all-conference pick Daniel Brown (54 tackles, 3 sacks) lines up on the strong side, aiding Louisville’s run defense, but there is a slight hole open on the weak side. There’s competition there: one option is sophomore Preston Brown, who impressed in limited duty as a rookie. Brown could actually play in the middle and Heyman on the weak side, giving U.L. a different look.

The gap at cornerback is concerning. Louisville won’t be able to bring pressure unless it has confidence in the secondary’s ability to hang with receivers; the defense will really suffer if the Cardinals can’t properly replace Johnny Patrick and Bobby Burns. Junior Darius Ashley could move into the starting lineup or remain at nickel back, where he’s proved valuable. This is a spot where incoming freshmen Andrew Johnson or Charles Gaines could steal an immediate starting role, though the idea of a true freshman starting at cornerback is troublesome. But that may very well be the case is U.L. doesn’t see improved play from seniors Preston Pace or Anthony Connor; the latter missed the 2010 season with an A.C.L. tear.

The concerns don’t drift over to safety, where Louisville has two burgeoning stars in place for another season. Hakeem Smith and Shenard Holton, at strong and free safety, respectively, broke into the starting lineup in 2010 and impressed; both are all-conference candidates in 2011. How will each fare under the pressure of leading this secondary? That role went to the departed senior cornerbacks, whose presence allowed this safety pair to ease into starting action in 2010. Now, Smith and Holton are the glue that holds the pass defense together. They need to deliver.

Position battle(s) to watch

Offensive line Like Arkansas State a day ago, Louisville lost four starters off its offensive front. And as with the Red Wolves, the Cardinals bring back a starting center good enough to be the line’s foundation: junior Mario Benavides has been a hit since 2009, when he grabbed a starting role as a true freshman, and followed that up with all-conference honors a year ago. But what’s going to happen at the four open spots? It’s not just a matter of lost starters but also the departure of several key reserves, a combination of events that leaves U.L. with only 25 returning starts along the line heading into this fall – all but one from Benavides. The 25th start belongs to Alex Kupper, a junior who made  a single start for Benavides a year ago. I suspect that Kupper will move to guard, where his experience gives him a leg up over his younger competition. Senior tackle Ryan Kessling is a clear starter at tackle, where he spent 10 games last fall in a reserve role. So that’s three starters right there, more than likely. What about the rest of the depth chart? Well, thanks to rampant inexperience and a slew of injuries during the spring, the competition throughout the offensive line – outside of center – may not be decided until well into August. One thing is clear: Strong wants bodies here, wants to rotate several linemen to keep things fresh, so the race is on to find suitable applicants to fill a multitude of open positions. His search will certainly not exclude capable freshmen, redshirt or otherwise, which means that youngsters like Jake Smith, Mike Romano and Ryan Mack are in the hunt for snaps. Keep an eye on sophomore Kamran Joyer, who is back close to full health after missing last season with a foot injury.

Game(s) to watch

I think Louisville can open strong, perhaps going 4-1 outside of the Big East depending on games with rival Kentucky and North Carolina. If that does occur, U.L. will need to win those conference home games — the Cardinals have three such games in 2011, with four Big East foes coming away from home. I see Rutgers and Syracuse as two must-win home games if Louisville hopes to return to bowl play.

Season breakdown & prediction

In a nutshell Most are predicting a slight decline in the win column for Louisville in 2011, and while I’d love to play the contrarian, thanks to my respect for what Charlie Strong brings to the table, I have to get in line and follow suit. Let’s talk again a year from now, when a young roster has another year under its belt: for now, as we enter the heart of the summer, Louisville has far too many question marks to be considered a viable Big East contender. It’s really about a total lack of experience, beginning somewhat at quarterback and continuing with an offensive line totally lacking in answers. I am confident that despite some issues the defense will come together – this is largely due to Strong himself – but you do have to look at a thin corps of cornerbacks as a concern, though the secondary as whole will benefit from having a pair of talented, still-growing safeties in place to solidify the back end of the defense. The major issue is really across the board, where U.L. lacks satisfactory depth. I place this blame not on Strong but fully on Kragthorpe, who didn’t just recruit terribly but haphazardly, which leaves some positions with substantial options but others scrambling to make ends meet. In all, perhaps a slight slide should have been expected even when looking ahead to this season a year ago, when we knew that Louisville was going to lose a significant portion of the roster to graduation. One thing a solid first year does do is raise expectations heading into year two; you’d never trade away the feel-good nature of a year ago, but the seven-win finish does set up the premise that the climb will continue with each passing year. I don’t see the progression continuing in the win column, but I do see continued progression in all facets not calculated in the standings. Louisville has a very nice future under Strong, whether this year finds the Cardinals at 5-7 or otherwise.

Dream season What letdown? Louisville trumps last season’s seven wins with a 9-3 finish, which ties the Cardinals for second place in the Big East.

Nightmare season Strong has all the time in the world to makes things work, but there is some hand-wringing after U.L. drops down to 3-9, 1-6 in conference play.

In case you were wondering

Where do Louisville fans congregate? For message board chatter, check out Cardinal Sports and Inside The Ville. Additional coverage can be found at the Web site of The Courier-Journal and Card Chronicle, with the latter easily one of the best blogs in the Big East.

Word Count

Through 42 teams 117,557.

Up Next

Who is No. 78? A men’s team at tomorrow’s university suffered four devastating N.C.A.A. title game losses in 1980, 1986, 1994 and 1996 but has won four national championships since 1999.

You can also follow Paul Myerberg and Pre-Snap Read on Twitter.

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Comments

  1. JBagwine says:

    Up next is UVA I think.

  2. David says:

    Virginia, with men’s lax runner-up finishes in the years cited and championships in 1999, 2003, 2006, and 2011, is next.

  3. Ed says:

    Coming in at 78 will be the UVA Cavaliers

  4. Steve says:

    I think we might be selling u of l a little short with this ranking. I’m not going to argue to much as it’s a case of what have you done for me lately but I could see a middle of the big east finish and around a 7-5 record. Well looking at the schedule and believing Uconn and ‘Cuse is better then them it will be tough for them to get to 7 wins. But do you think Ohio U is really better then the Cardinals of Yum Brand ville?

  5. schedule nit says:

    Yeah, really can’t imagine what took so long for Charlie Strong to get a HC offer. Maybe he was rumored to keep getting thrown out of casinoes? Maybe he has an odd sounding voice? Maybe he had a history of accumulating NCAA violations?

    Skin color, perhaps?

  6. Wrek says:

    I could make the same skin color post about Mike Locksley and Bud Foster. Don’t be stupid.

    Gotta love it when people play the race card even after Strong has gotten the job.

  7. schedule nit says:

    Next time, try english?

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