Tuesday, August 12, 2014

2014 season preview: Louisville Cardinals


9/1: Miami (Mon.)
9/6: Murray State
9/13: @ Virginia
9/20: @ Florida Int'l
9/27: Wake Forest
10/3: @ Syracuse (Fri.)
10/11: @ Clemson
10/18: NC State
10/25: BYE
10/30: Florida State (Thu.)
11/8: @ Boston College
11/15: BYE
11/22: @ Notre Dame
11/29: Kentucky

Skip: Duke, Georgia Tech, North Carolina, Pittsburgh, Virginia Tech

2013 results:

Ohio: W, 49-7
Eastern Kentucky: W, 44-7
Kentucky: W, 27-13
Florida Int'l: W, 72-0
Temple: W, 30-7
Rutgers: W, 24-10
Central Florida: L, 38-35
South Florida: W, 34-3
Connecticut: W, 31-10
Houston: W, 20-13
Memphis: W, 24-17
Cincinnati: W, 31-24
Miami: W, 36-9 (RA Bowl)

Record: 12-1 (7-1); 2nd, AAC

Projected starters:

QB: Will Gardner (rSo.)
RB: Dominique Brown (5Sr.)
WR: DeVante Parker (Sr.)
WR: Eli Rogers (Sr.)
WR: Michaelee Harris (5Sr.)
TE: Gerald Christian (5Sr.)
LT: Jamon Brown (Sr.)
LG: John Miller (Sr.)
C: Jake Smith (5Sr.)
RG: Ryan Mack (rJr.)
RT: Kelby Johnson (Jr.)

DE: Sheldon Rankins (Jr.)
NT: DeAngelo Brown (rSo.)
DE: B.J. DuBose (5Sr.)
SLB: Deiontrez Mount (Sr.)
ILB: Nick Dawson-Brents (rSo.)
ILB: James Burgess (Jr.)
WLB: Lorenzo Mauldin (Sr.)
CB: Charles Gaines (rJr.)
CB: Terrell Floyd (Sr.)
SS: Gerod Holliman (rSo.)
FS: Jarrod Barnes (rSo.)

K: John Wallace (rJr.)
P: Ryan Johnson (5Sr.)

(Italics indicate new starter.)

Coach: Bobby Petrino (1st season) (Petrino also coached Louisville from 2003-2006.)

Media prediction: 3rd, Atlantic


2013 1st team: WR DeVante Parker, C Jake Smith, DL Marcus Smith, CB Charles Gaines, S Calvin Pryor, S Hakeem Smith
2013 2nd team: QB Teddy Bridgewater, OG John Miller, DL Lorenzo Brown, LB Preston Brown
2014 preseason: WR DeVante Parker

(Italics indicate departed player.)

Louisville has impeccable timing.  Charlie Strong, brought in from Florida for his first head coaching gig, passed that test with flying colors.  The Cardinals' methodical demolition of the Gators a couple years ago shined the spotlight on them, and they parlayed the publicity into a lifeboat from the second tier of college football.  As Maryland's replacement, they're considered an athletic upgrade, particularly in football.

Last year the Cardinals came within a hair of an undefeated season, and their failure to do so dropped them from the BCS into a bowl that's considered mid-level at best, highlighting the clout (or lack thereof) of the conference they're leaving behind.  Despite bringing back a familiar name to replace Strong (Bobby Petrino, trying to rehab his image after a series of decisions that made him look like a complete ass) Louisville will probably be hard-pressed to repeat their 12-1 standard they set last year.

-- Offense

It's always a challenge to replace a franchise quarterback.  Redshirt sophomore Will Gardner emerged during the spring as the clear choice to step into the shoes left behind by Teddy Bridgewater.  Gardner's game experience is extremely limited, but he stands 6'5" and possesses a strong throwing arm; more importantly, he's got an army of veteran talent supporting him.

Louisville expects a very big season out of senior receiver DeVante Parker, who caught 12 touchdowns last year and led the team with 855 receiving yards as well.  Parker is considered one of the top receivers in the ACC, but he's far from the only senior in the skill-position corps.  The Cardinals also have slippery slot receiver Eli Rogers, and a pair of experienced complementary targets in Kai De La Cruz and Michaelee Harris.  Both can be dangerous when healthy; the problem is, neither has been, Harris in particular.  Harris has a pair of ACL tears on his medical history, and De La Cruz spent most of last year fighting off a hamstring injury.  Tight end Gerald Christian, also a senior, provides some big play ability as well, and is a consistent and dependable passcatcher.

There's also a solid complement of running backs, starting with senior Dominique Brown.  Brown split carries with Senorise Perry last year, but with Perry off to the NFL, Brown could see his workload increase, and push his season yardage total over the 1,000 mark from the 825 he racked up last year.  He's built for the job - Brown is a big, powerful back standing 6'2", 235.  Louisville also boasts a BCS national championship MVP, Michael Dyer, a bowling-ball back who sat 2012 after transferring from Auburn, then missed the second half of last season with injuries.

The line is the picture of stability on the left side.  Jamon Brown has experience at both right and left tackle, starting all of 2012 on the right side before moving to the left last year.  John Miller will be entering his fourth season as the starter at left guard this year.  At center, Jake Smith looks as though he'll return for a second season as the starter in the middle; Smith has experience at guard as well, and moved to center in 2013.  Petrino has considered moving him back to RG, but he looks likely to stick at center.  That makes RG up for grabs, even though Ryan Mack started 12 games there last year.  Mack is the likely frontrunner to keep that job, largely because very few other linemen on the Louisville roster can claim much experience.  The early favorite for right tackle is juco transfer Kelby Johnson - yes, the very same who once looked like a possible heir apparent for that position at UVA.

There aren't too many question marks on this offense - a few, but not big ones.  Uncertain depth on the line and some competitions on the right side, plus, of course, the ability of Gardner to catch up to the responsibilities of his new job under center.  Gardner will have good protection, though, and should have no excuses from his very veteran receiving corps.  Dyer makes for an exciting X-factor for the Louisville offense as well.  Dominique Brown is more than capable of being the workhorse, but Dyer, if he settles down from a fairly troubled college career so far, can give the Cardinals a new wrinkle for the running game.  This offense isn't the very best you'll find in the ACC, but it should keep Louisville in contention most of the season.

-- Defense

Todd Grantham came over from UGA to take over the Louisville defense, bringing the 3-4 scheme with him.  That makes things interesting in Louisville, particularly in the linebacking corps.  Combining some losses to graduation with the new 3-4 scheme means that the linebackers largely consist of converted defensive ends.  Only ILB James Burgess was a true linebacker last season; Burgess is the leading returning tackler with 72.  Lorenzo Mauldin was a full-time starter as a DE last season, and he was a good one, recording 9 sacks and 12 TFL and getting his paws on a few passes too.  This year, Mauldin is the strong-side linebacker, so the role won't be completely unfamiliar as he'll probably spend quite a bit of time with his hand on the ground anyway.

Nick Dawson-Brents, a big, heavy player for a college linebacker at 265 pounds, is another DE convert, now slated to start at ILB.  He'll be pushed hard, though, by Keith Kelsey, who had 24 tackles as a reserve LB last season, his redshirt freshman year.  On the weak side, Louisville figures to use senior Deiontrez Mount, an occasional starter at (you guessed it) DE during the past three years.  Louisville is not without some depth at linebacker, but it's still likely to be a rocky beginning at first.

Up front, Louisville has the big heavies you need for a 3-4 defensive line, but as with linebacker it's a totally reworked unit thanks to several graduations.  320-pound sophomore DeAngelo Brown, who sat last season with an Achilles tear, gets first crack at nose tackle.  Another 300-pounder, Sheldon Rankins, will start off at one of the end spots, while senior B.J. Dubose - who's had a rather up-and-down career - will take the other.  Dubose has shown promise in the past three years but has never been able to break through regularly into the starting lineup until now.  Rankins brings a lot of potential to the table; he had three sacks last year in fairly limited time.  Including 335-pound redshirt freshman Johnny Richardson, who will rotate in at nose tackle, Louisville has the size necessary to succeed up front in the 3-4; they badly lack experience, however, having nobody with any significant number of starts under their belt.

Secondary is still a fluid situation, as - once again - Louisville was hit hard by graduation, this time to the safety corps.  Cornerback is in very good shape, with starters Charles Gaines (5 picks in 2013) and Terrell Floyd (4 picks) both returning.  Floyd is expected to play a very versatile role this year, moving all around the field and playing some safety in addition to his cornerback duties.  Louisville has a pretty good idea who will start at strong safety; Gerod Holliman did a solid job during his apprenticeship last year and is ready for the big-time.  But free safety remains almost totally undetermined for now, hence the expected rotation of the veteran Floyd.

Transition years to brand-new schemes are often a huge challenge; this looks like no exception, particularly with a great deal of uncertainty and guys playing new positions at the all-important linebacker spots.  The line will probably be adequate, since size is sometimes all you need, but safety and linebacker is a really tough combo of positions to have such fluidity.

-- Special teams

John Wallace is a reasonably accurate kicker, but he doesn't have much range; his season long was 43 last year and his career long is 45.  Plus, he's managed to miss six extra points the last two seasons.  Ryan Johnson is a good enough punter, but not a weapon.

-- Outlook

Just looking at the offense, you can see why Louisville is the projected third team in their division conference-within-a-conference.  For one thing, the challengers are not that inspiring, and for another, Parker and Brown command respect for good reason.  If Gardner proves a quick study, the Cardinals will create some major fireworks.  But they could lose games 49-42 just as easily.  The defense doesn't have a single legitimate star; Floyd probably comes closest to that ideal, but there's a risk of spreading him too thin.  The cornerbacks are legit, but the whole rest of the defense outside of perhaps Burgess is going off potential right now, and in some cases, not that high of potential.  The offense plus 11 traffic cones could get this team to bowl eligibility, and the first half of the schedule is not at all intimidating; they'll probably finish it 5-1 or 6-0.  But the likely ceiling here is 9 wins at most.  A 7-9 win season will get them to a decent bowl and a respectable debut in the ACC, but there's a pretty big gap between them and the Coastal's top two, and there's probably an upset waiting for them somewhere.

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