Posted by Chip Patterson
College Football has no offseason. Every coach knows that the preparation for September begins now, in Spring Practice . So we here at the Eye on College Football will get you ready as teams open spring ball with our Spring Practice Primers . Today, we look at Louisville , who started spring practice last Monday.
First-year coach Charlie Strong turned last year's team of veterans into winners, but can he repeat the success with much less experience on the roster?
After the departure of Bobby Petrino, Louisville football fell into the cellar of the Big East. In three seasons under head coach Steve Kragthrope, the Cardinals only won five conference games. They had gone from being conference champs to conference chumps, a change had to be made.
Enter Charlie Strong. A seasoned veteran in the coaching community, Strong entered with a tenacity and energy that had clearly been building up during his 20+ years on the sideline as an assistant. After being passed over for multiple opportunities, Louisville was the school that gave him the keys to the kingdom. Cardinals fans may have been skeptical of the long-time assistant coach, but after seeing what he was able to do in 2010 there is only optimism for his potential with the program.
Louisville's 2010 squad was littered with frustrated upperclassmen, but that is to be expected after back-to-back 1-6 records in conference play. Strong saw potential in this group, and he was determined to get the most out of his players before they left the program. He liked the potential, but was dissatisfied with the attitudes - and he let them know. Strong ripped into the roster during his first team meeting in December 2009, shortly after his hiring. He criticized their lack of commitment in the classroom and on the field, introducing a new standard around Louisville football. Strong held up his end of the bargain, committing himself to the players and serving as an example of the energy and toughness he wanted to see on the field.
The result was their first postseason berth (and win) since the 2007 Orange Bowl win. It wasn't always pretty, but the turnaround was enough to revitalize the fan base and create a new sense of belief around the program. Even in the games that the Cardinals lost, they were almost always fighting. Five of the Cardinals' six losses were by 8 points or less. Not quite enough to become competitive in a wide-open Big East title race down the stretch, but enough to get the Cardinals back to the postseason.
One of the immediate concerns for Louisville in spring practice is their running game. At 175 yards/game, Louisville led the Big East in rushing offense last season. Much of that weight was carried by senior running back Bilal Powell. Powell racked up 1,405 yards and 11 touchdowns, despite missing a majority of two games due to injury/illness. He was spelled mostly by freshman Jeremy Wright, who picked up 327 yards and four touchdowns in limited appearances. But with Wright missing spring practice rehabbing from offseason knee surgery, opportunity will knock again for senior Victor Anderson.
Anderson exploded as a freshman in 2008, rushing for 1,047 yards and being named the Big East Rookie of the Year. But a nagging shoulder injury in 2009 eventually ended his sophomore campaign in surgery. Anderson stepped up with a 108 yard performance against Arkansas State early in 2010, but failed to find the end zone and saw his carries diminish as the season came to a close. With Powell graduated and Wright missing spring practice, Anderson can use the opportunity to reclaim his position in the running back rotation.
Finding those holes might be difficult early, with Louisville only returning one starter from last year's offensive line. Center Mario Benavides will be counted on to lead a new group of trench warriors in 2011, but for now he'll have to lead from the sidelines as he recovers from shoulder surgery. But Strong doesn't need the an experienced offensive line to lead vocally, he just needs tough players to lead by example.
"We have a lot of skill guys coming back," Strong explained to the media before spring practice began. "But what you don't ever want to do is let that be the core of your team. The toughness of your team is built up front, with the offensive and defensive lines.
"I don't mind leadership coming from that group [of skill players] if it has to, but the core of our team has to be from the front people."
That core group of offensive lineman will also have an important task this spring: getting used to a new quarterback. For now, that starting quarterback appears to be Will Stein. Formerly a walk-on, the redshirt junior is the heir apparent to the position with both of last year's starters (both seniors) gone. Louisville fans will want to see early enrollee Teddy Bridgewater, the nationally ranked dual-threat quarterback who chose the Cardinals over Miami after Randy Shannon was fired. But according to reports from practice, it seems like Bridgewater has a lot of learning left to do before he can line up with the first string.
But along with Bridgewater, there will be many inexperienced players who get to see increased time this spring due to injuries. Strong announced a list of 14 players who will miss spring practice due to injury and/or offseason surgery. The list contained several potential starters, including the aforementioned shoulder injury to Benavides, and yet another knee injury for redshirt freshman wide receiver Michaelee Harris. For a team that will be looking to replace 14 starters on offense and defense, it certainly does not help having those candidates on the sideline. Strong put is putting a positive spin on it, arguing that the extra development will only improve the depth in the long run.
So what can Cardinals fans expect from Louisville in the fall? My guess is that they will be a team that develops as the season is progressing. They kick off the season with Murray State, Florida International, and Kentucky before getting a bye week at the end of September. The advantage for the Cardinals will be game-speed experience and one true road test before ever having to play their first conference game.
The obvious disadvantage to Louisville's schedule is nine straight games without a break to close the season. The coaching staff can only hope that the health issues of the spring don't linger into the fall. A college football season often will take its toll on a team around late October/early November. With no weeks off in their conference schedule, surviving the Big East round-robin will be the ultimate gut-check.
Last year, that would have been time for the seniors to step forward and provide an example for this team. With a younger squad, the challenge becomes greater for Strong to get the most out of his players. When they are banged up and beaten down, they will look to Strong for energy and toughness.
Luckily, those qualities don't to seem to be in short supply with Charlie Strong.
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