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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. 84: Louisville

With a new coach and a new positive outlook, Louisville hopes to be off to the races.

Louisville fans can take solace in this lonely fact: as bad as things got under Steve Kragthorpe, the Cardinals were still better than Syracuse. Not much better – a single point better, it turned out – yet Louisville was able to remain out of the conference cellar. That, along with Kragthorpe’s dismissal at the end of the season, was the only good news to come out of last season. Of the three Kragthorpe-coach Louisville teams, none of which were any good, the 2009 version was the worst. Hence the coaching change, obviously. The Cardinals scored only 18.1 points per game – Bobby Petrino’s last team averaged nearly 38 points per game – never topping 27 against an F.B.S. opponent and scoring 14 points or less seven times.

Conference
Big East

Location
Louisville, Ky.

Nickname
Cardinals

Returning starters
12 (8 offense, 4 defense)

Last year’s ranking
No. 76

2009 record
(4-8, 1-6)

Last year’s
re-ranking

No. 101

2010 schedule

  • Sept. 4
    Kentucky
  • Sept. 11
    Eastern Kentucky
  • Sept. 18
    at Oregon St.
  • Oct. 2
    at Arkansas St.
  • Oct. 9
    Memphis
  • Oct. 15
    Cincinnati
  • Oct. 23
    Connecticut
  • Oct. 30
    at Pittsburgh
  • Nov. 6
    at Syracuse
  • Nov. 13
    South Florida
  • Nov. 20
    West Virginia
  • Nov. 27
    at Rutgers

Last year’s prediction

It’s hard to get excited about this upcoming season for the Cardinals. In 2007, the team brought back enough talent to contend for a national championship. Last fall, though the Cardinals lost their quarterback and their receiving corps, there was still reason to believe the team could challenge for a Big East title. This season? Not so much. I think the team falls short of bowl eligibility for the second consecutive season: 5-7, 2-5 in the Big East. If that is U.L.’s final record, the university will be in the market for a new coach.

2009 recap

In a nutshell As mentioned, Louisville landed only a single Big East victory; again, Petrino’s last team went 6-1 in conference play. While the defense was better, the Cardinals allowed 29.9 points per game against Big East opposition. The writing was on the wall for Kragthorpe and his staff before the calendar turned to November, raising an important question: Why did Louisville even think to bring him back at all in 2009? His replacement, Charlie Strong, may not face the rebuilding process that, say, Doug Marrone faces at Syracuse, but it’s clear that the level of talent was markedly lower under Kragthorpe than it was under Petrino. The former Florida assistant will improve the roster in that area, though help may not arrive in time for 2010.

High point A sloppy 10-9 victory over Syracuse in November allowed Louisville to maintain a small sense of dignity, which counts for something. A very small something. A second-half explosion (18 points, or more than the Cardinals scored in half their games in 2009) lifted Louisville to a 25-23 win over Southern Mississippi on Oct. 10.

Low point Louisville’s 31-27 loss to Kentucky in the Governor’s Cup gave the program three straight losses to its prime rival. The Cardinals, in case you had forgotten, went 4-0 against Kentucky under Petrino. In Louisville’s defense, each of its eight losses came against teams that participated in bowl play in 2009. Only one of those teams, however, dropped less than 30 on the Cardinals.

Tidbit Kragthorpe is only the second Louisville coach during the modern era to coach at least three seasons and not post at least one winning season. He joins Bob Weber, who won at least five games three times from 1980-84 but finished with a 20-35 record. I don’t think anyone will be surprised to hear that Krathorpe is the only coach in modern school history – this may be in modern F.B.S. history, I won’t know until I get an intern to do such research – to suffer a letdown on offense of this magnitude: after scoring 422 points in 2007, the Cardinals scored only 217 points last fall. That’s 205 fewer points, or roughly 17 points per game over a 12-game season, in the span of two years.

Tidbit (natural grass edition) Louisville will play only one game on grass in 2010: at Pittsburgh on Oct. 30. The remaining 11 will be played on turf, with seven home games joined by road games at Oregon State, Arkansas State, Syracuse and Rutgers, none of which play on natural grass.

Former players in the N.F.L.

30 K David Akers (Philadelphia), TE Gary Barnidge (Carolina), FB Brock Bolen (Jacksonville), WR Deion Branch (Seattle), QB Brian Brohm (Buffalo), RB Michael Bush (Oakland), OT George Bussey (New England), QB Hunter Cantwell (Carolina), WR Patrick Carter (Seattle), WR Harry Douglas (Atlanta), LB Elvis Dumervil (Denver), CB William Gay (Pittsburgh), OT Breno Giacomini (Green Bay), DT Adrian Gary (New England), WR Trent Guy (Carolina), DT Earl Heyman (New Orleans), LB Brandon Johnson (Cincinnati), CB Chris Johnson (Oakland), WR Scott Long (San Francisco), DT Amobi Okoye (Houston), OG Kurt Quarterman (Detroit), QB Chris Redman (Atlanta), S Kerry Rhodes (Arizona), RB Kolby Smith (Kansas City), OG Jason Spitz (Green Bay), FB Joe Tronzo (Cincinnati), CB Woodny Turenne (Chicago), WR Mario Urrutia (Tampa Bay), DT Willie Williams (St. Louis), C Eric Wood (Buffalo).

Arbitrary top five list

Favorite Kentucky bourbons
1. Wild Turkey.
2. Jim Beam.
3. Maker’s Mark.
4. Old Forester.
5. Rebel Yell.

Coaching

Charlie Strong (Central Arkansas ’82), entering his first season with the Cardinals. Of course, Strong is well known for his extended tenure with the Gators, which covered five Florida coaches: Galen Hall, Gary Darnell, Steve Spurrier, Zook and Meyer. His major college coaching career begin in Gainesville 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 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 has earned the headlines, it was the Florida defense that separated it from the rest of college football over the past five seasons. 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 last fall. 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 may be Louisville’s gain.

Tidbit (coaching edition) Strong’s specialty is defense, in case that above paragraph didn’t hammer that message home. Did you also know he has ties to the University of Florida? He used that connection to land his defensive coordinator, nabbing Vance Bedford, the former U.F. cornerbacks coach. Bedford’s resume includes stints as the secondary coach at Colorado State, Oklahoma State and Michigan; he was a member of the 1997 national title-winning staff with the Wolverines. Bedford also spent six years (1999-2004) as the defensive backs coach with the Chicago Bears. Strong landed Mike Sanford, formerly the head coach at U.N.L.V., as his offensive coordinator. Though Sanford failed to bring the Rebels to respectability during his five years with the program, he does have a reputation as one of the best spread-based offensive minds in college football. Sanford was Urban Meyer’s coordinator at Utah from 2003-4, a period that culminated in Utah’s Fiesta Bowl victory over Pittsburgh. There’s that Florida connection again.

Players to watch

The Cardinals will rely upon the two-headed backfield of Victor Anderson and Bilal Powell to set the tone for the offense. If he’s healthy, Anderson is one of the best running backs in the Big East: he was the conference offensive newcomer of the year in 2008, when he rushed for a team-best 1,047 yards and 8 touchdowns. Unfortunately, Anderson struggled with injuries last fall, missing all or parts of the season’s last five games. He didn’t miss a beat when in the lineup, however, rushing for 473 yards and 5 scores on 5.3 yards per carry. His stint on the sidelines allowed Powell to set new career highs in carries (a team-leading 107), yards (394) and touchdowns (4). Powell slimmed down heading into the spring, hoping that improved conditioning would allow him to make a run at the starting lineup, but the job is Anderson’s — if he’s on the field, of course. But with Powell as the top reserve, Louisville has one of the better running backs tandems in the Big East.

The quarterback situation is slightly unsettled. The job should go to senior Adam Froman, who stepped into the starting lineup four games into 2009 and entered the spring holding the top spot on the depth chart. While he was not competing against a talented group, Froman was the team’s best option under center a year ago: 1,100 yards with 5 touchdowns (against 5 interceptions) with nearly a 61 percent completion percentage. He first earned meaningful snaps due to an injury to senior Justin Burke, who won the job during fall camp; however, Burke lost his starting job after suffering an injury in the season’s third game, allowing Froman to grab the starting role. Sophomore Will Stein, a former walk-on, also started a pair of games in 2009; he’s a nice story, but not a viable option if Louisville hopes to challenge for the Big East championship. One true freshman quarterback has already left the program: Luke Woodley, who joined the program early, left after the conclusion of spring practice. The pocket passer likely saw the writing on the wall; he likely wasn’t the best fit in Mark Sanford’s spread offense. Dominique Brown, who arrives in the fall, is the better fit in the former U.N.L.V. coach’s system.

Louisville lost two leading receivers in Scott Long and Trent Guy, the latter of whom made a significant impact on special teams, but return enough options out wide to expect equal production from the position in 2010. Senior Doug Beaumont, a prime contributor over each of the last two years, will lead the group. His production took a marked dive in 2010, likely due to Louisville’s struggles at quarterback: after making 62 grabs for 750 yards in 2008, Beaumont made only 35 receptions for 440 yards a year ago. Josh Chichester, who becomes the tallest receiver in the country following Ali Villanueva’s graduation at Army, will join Beaumont in the starting lineup. The Cardinals have a talented receiving option at tight end in senior Cameron Graham, who finished third on the team in receptions (24) and yards (281) while tying for the team lead with two touchdowns. In terms of reserves, keep an eye on redshirt freshman Damian Copeland, one of the few young Kragthorpe recruits destined to make an impact with the Cardinals. Sophomore Stephon Ball will also be in the mix.

The offensive line returns its entire two-deep minus two-year starting left guard Abdul Kuyateh. Still, expect some struggles as this line adapts to the new spread offense, a transition sure to incur some ugly moments, particularly in September. The line will be senior-dominated, with seniors starting at every position but center. However, the line’s most talented performer might be sophomore center Mario Benavides, who performed ably when inheriting the difficult task of replacing Eric Wood, a four-year starter in the middle of the Louisville line. Seniors Byron Stingily (left) and Jeff Adams will bookend the line, though Greg Tomczyk, with plenty of experience, could challenge Stingily for the starting role on the blind side. Joe Evinger will replace Kutayeh at left guard.

I’m very excited to see what type of impact Strong will have on this Louisville defense, which performed well below expectations in 2009. He won’t be working with a full deck, however, as the Cardinals return only four starters from a year ago. Two are on the line: tackle Greg Scruggs (21 tackles, 1 sack) and end Malcolm Tatum. There is returning experience, particularly at end. After serving last season as the line’s leading reserve, William Savoy (23 tackles, 5 sacks) will step into a starting role. Senior Tim High will get first shot at replacing L.T. Walker on the nose, with another senior, former JUCO transfer Joe Townsend, battling to serve as his backup.

Linebacker was hit hard by graduation. Louisville must supplant leading tackler Jon Dempsey, who played well after being moved from the weak side to the middle as a senior, and Chris Rampa, who led the team in sacks as Dempsey’s replacement on the weak side. It’s not all bad news, however; the Cardinals return a few players with in-game experience, including two players who have started in the past. One is senior Antwon Canady, who will take over at middle linebacker. The former JUCO transfer has earned significant time both in the middle and on the weak side during his career, but is best suited in the middle. Brandon Heath (44 tackles, 3.5 for loss) will start on the weak side, while Dexter Heyman, the most athletically gifted of the group, will man the strong side. Heyman’s older brother, Earl, was an all-conference defensive lineman for the Cardinals.

Position battles to watch

No matter how you care to pronounce it, Louisville needs help on defense.

Secondary The Cardinals must replace three starters in the defensive backfield, but hope to offset its losses with the return of a handful of last season’s contributors. The one returning starter, senior cornerback Johnny Patrick, brings plenty of experience to the table: nearly three years of starting experience, including all 12 games in 2009. Nevertheless, Louisville will miss the flexibility of Chaz Thompson, who alternated between cornerback and safety during his career, as well as the production of free safety Richard Raglin, who finished third on the team with 57 tackles. Patrick has one cornerback spot locked down; prepare for competition at each of the three remaining positions. Shenard Holton, a sophomore, leads the way at free safety after backing up Raglin a year ago. After backing up Patrick a season ago, senior Anthony Conner is the leading contender to grab the open cornerback spot; also in the mix is junior Patrick Pace, though he was limited during the spring due to injury. Cornerback is enough of a concern that Strong moved former running back Darius Ashley, the team’s second-leading rusher in 2009, to the position in order to add depth. Perhaps the fiercest battle is occurring at strong safety, where the Cardinals must replace both Justin Mathews and Daniel Covington. Junior Terence Simien topped the depth chart during the spring, but he’ll be challenged by a trio of redshirt freshmen: Champ Lee, Isaac Geffrad and Titus Teague. Keep an eye on the latter. One sure thing — Patrick — who, while experienced, isn’t that much of a sure thing. He’s the leader in the defensive backfield, however, and will need to carry an otherwise inexperienced group through what should be a season of growing pains.

Game(s) to watch

The rivalry game with Kentucky will set the tone for the first half of the season. Getting a win there would likely allow the Cardinals to enter Big East play with a 3-3 mark, though 4-2 remains a possibility. Though both teams will be improved, Louisville still finds itself alongside Syracuse at the bottom of the conference. Will that game again decide last place in the Big East?

Season breakdown & prediction

In a nutshell Steve Kragthorpe didn’t just drive a talented roster — the one he inherited from Petrino — into the ground; he did a horrific job in recruiting, leaving the Cardinals alongside Syracuse as the least-talented team in the Big East. Perhaps his dismissal was a “great blessing,” as Kraghtorpe termed it; his entire three-year reign was nothing short of a nightmare. 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? By recruiting, for starters. He’s already made a significant mark in this area, far exceeding expectations during the 2010 recruiting cycle despite having less than two months to build a class. While his strength as a recruiter will eventually replenish this depleted roster, it won’t do much for the Cardinals in 2010 — though I expect a handful of new additions to make a significant impact in the fall. In fact, 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.

Dream season Strong breathes fresh air into the program. Though the Cardinals don’t take the Big East, they do finish in the top half of the conference with an 8-4 record, 5-2 in conference play.

Nightmare season Tough sledding for Strong and his staff in year one: 4-8, 1-6 in the Big East.

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.

Tidbit (Twitter edition) I hate doing this, yet I do so once a week or so. Don’t forget you can follow Pre-Snap Read on Twitter. I’m at 340 followers right now; let’s try to get to 1,000 by August. I am world-renowned for the healthy interaction I have with all my followers: close, but not too close. Just right.

Up Next

Who is No. 83? Despite reaching bowl play five times in the last six seasons, our next program has not won more than seven games in a season since 2003.

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Comments

  1. jjtiller says:

    The Golden Gophers are coming

  2. Steve says:

    I prefer Woodford Reserve.

  3. Jim Narby says:

    next team is nebraska

  4. Rookierookie says:

    I have to say, I believe that a 3-win season is within the realm of possibility for Louisville, since it’s by no means a given that Louisville can beat Syracuse. Hell, Syracuse has yet to appear on the Countdown.

    …but Paul sure is high on Syracuse and Indiana this year. Not that there aren’t good reasons to be, still, it’s quite surprising that neither of them have appeared yet.

  5. MWR57 says:

    good analysis of the football situation but you need a trip to the bourbon trail, your list of bourbon needs more research!

    Paul: Believe me, it’s not for lack of research. Wild Turkey might not be great, but it’s been my bourbon of choice for years. You could pretty much interchange Nos. 2-4. I believe I should have included Knob Creek, in retrospect. No. 5 was a very (very, very) cheap option while in college. I might have been all Yankee, but my liver was for the Confederacy.

  6. Gotham Gator says:

    In your list of Florida head coaches that span Strong’s tenure in Gainesville, you left one out, and that’s Charlie Strong himself. He was the interim head coach for Florida’s Peach Bowl game against Miami in 2004, after Zook was dismissed. The less said about that game, the better (other than to say the loss was hardly Strong’s fault).

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