louisvillefive good questions about the cardinals

Mark Story's U of L football primer: Petrino returns to a new world in Louisville

Herald-Leader ColumnistAugust 24, 2014 

  • Players to watch

    WR DeVante Parker: Getting Parker to return for his senior season was a huge deal for the Cardinals. He's a big wide receiver (6-3, 208 pounds) with big-play ability (16.1 yards per catch last season and 22 TDs since 2012) who should thrive under new coach Bobby Petrino. The Ballard High School alum would have been selected in the early rounds of last spring's NFL Draft had he opted to turn pro, and he's regarded as one of the top wide receivers in the country going into the season.

    DE/LB Lorenzo Mauldin: The new coaching staff has had nothing but praise for Mauldin, a 6-4 senior who racked up 9½ sacks for the Cardinals last season. He missed spring practice with a shoulder injury but caught Petrino's attention on day one of fall camp. "It was fun seeing him coming off the edge," he said. "I kind of watched him a lot more than I would normally watch a rush guy during practice." Fun fact: Mauldin has dyed the end of his dreadlocks Cardinal Red for the 2014 season.

    RBs Dominique Brown and Michael Dyer: The Louisville running game has to be mentioned here, but it's hard to single out one of these guys. Brown and Dyer — both seniors — will spearhead what should be a potent rushing attack. Brown led the Cards with 825 yards and eight TDs last season while splitting time with then-senior Senorise Perry. Dyer — a former BCS title game MVP at Auburn — was hampered by injuries for much of his first season at U of L, but he should be primed for a big 2014. Keep an eye on true freshman running back L.J. Scott as well.

    CB/KR Charles Gaines: The junior from Miami led the Cards with five interceptions and seven pass breakups last season and should be one of the top cornerbacks in the ACC this fall. "His ability is off the charts," Petrino said. "He's a very, very talented young guy that I anticipate will go out there and have a really, really good year for us." Gaines is also U of L's top kick returner. He had 10 returns for 301 yards and a touchdown last season.

    LB James Burgess: He started at outside linebacker as a sophomore last season but will switch to the inside "MO" linebacker position in Louisville's new 3-4 scheme this fall. Burgess is the Cards' top returning tackler (71 last season) and even more is expected from him in 2014. "Burgess is a guy that has great instincts, great vision, doesn't hesitate at all," Petrino said. "He's a 'see it and go get it immediately' (player)."

  • Scouting report

    Coach: Bobby Petrino (first season in return to Louisville; 41-9 in four seasons at U of L from 2003-06; 8-4 at Western Kentucky in 2013)

    Last season: 12-1 overall; 7-1 and second place in American Athletic Conference; beat Miami (Fla.) 36-9 in Russell Athletic Bowl

    Outlook: The Cardinals will have a new coaching staff, a new quarterback and a completely different schedule than what they're used to in their first season in the Atlantic Coast Conference. Bobby Petrino is back in town and U of L has been picked to finish in third place in the ACC Atlantic Division (behind defending national champ Florida State and Clemson). The Cards are 31st nationally in preseason AP voting. They'll play a schedule that is notably tougher than usual and includes three top-20 teams. "Those days are over with," Petrino said last month after discussing the more-than-occasional cupcake that U of L faced in its previous conferences. QB Teddy Bridgewater is gone, but the Cards boast arguably the best group of pass catchers in the league and a talented pool of running backs. If new QB Will Gardner proves effective, Petrino should have the kind of potent offense he loves. U of L lost several experienced defenders (including NFL Draft picks Calvin Pryor, Marcus Smith and Preston Brown) but will return plenty of talent on that side of the ball. New defensive coordinator Todd Grantham spent the past four seasons in the same role at Georgia and is implementing a 3-4 scheme at Louisville, a program that excelled with a 4-3 defense under former coach Charlie Strong.

    Question marks: Aside from the obvious question of how capable Gardner will be at the quarterback spot, the biggest concern for the Cards looks to be in the secondary. Charles Gaines and Terrell Floyd started at cornerback last season and both return, though Floyd is moving to a safety/nickelback role. "It's always hard to move a guy that's been a starter and has done a great job there," Petrino said, "But we feel like he'll really give us some leadership in the back." Pryor and Hakeem Smith started a combined 83 games at safety for Louisville over the past few years and both of those players are now in the NFL. Somebody will have to step up at that position. "When you have to replace two great players like that, it's always a big challenge," Petrino said.

    Game of the Year: Reigning Heisman Trophy winner Jameis Winston leads the preseason No. 1 and defending national champion Florida State Seminoles into town Oct. 30 for a nationally televised Thursday night game. The Cards haven't faced a top-20 team in the regular season since 2009 and haven't hosted a ranked team since 2008. That all changes with the move to the ACC.

1). How will Louisville handle the "step up in class" of an ACC schedule?

U of L will face three teams in 2014 — defending national champion Florida State, at Clemson and at Notre Dame — that will be ranked in everyone's preseason top 25. In 2013, the average RPI (yes, they have that for football, too) at the end of the seasons of Louisville's eight American Athletic Conference foes was 77.4. The eight ACC teams U of L will face in 2014 had an average RPI of 57.4. That's not an SEC-caliber schedule but it is a big leap from what Louisville has faced in recent seasons.

2). Can Bobby Petrino "go home" again?

If you didn't mind the coach's constant flirtations with other jobs, Petrino's first stint at Louisville (41-9 from 2003-06) was a rousing success. However, the records of prior coaches who have returned to scenes of their past glory as college head men is decidedly mixed. Bill Walsh went 17-7 in his first stop (1977-78) at Stanford, but had two losing seasons in three years (1992-94) the second time around. John Robinson was 67-14-2 at USC from 1976-82, but "only" 37-21-2 (1993-97) in his second shot with the Trojans. Johnny Majors won a national title and went 33-13-1 in four seasons (1973-76) at Pittsburgh, but was 12-32 in four years after returning in 1993. Conversely, Mike Riley went 8-14 at Oregon State in 1997 and 1998. But after three losing years as head coach of the San Diego Chargers, Riley returned to OSU and has led the Beavers to eight winning seasons in 11 years.

3.) How does Louisville replace Teddy Bridgewater?

There's no certainty U of L will ever have another quarterback who made the impact Bridgewater did. In only three seasons, the Miami product produced 27 wins as a starting QB, led the Cardinals to back-to-back bowl wins over Florida and Miami (Fla.), respectively, and became an NFL first-round draft choice (32nd pick, to Minnesota). Presumptive heir Will Gardner, a redshirt sophomore from Douglas, Ga., has thrown only 12 passes (completing eight) in his college career. But the 6-foot-5 pocket passer should benefit from Petrino's considerable offensive acumen.

4.) How smoothly will Louisville transition from Charlie Strong's 4-3 defense to the 3-4?

New Louisville defensive coordinator Todd Grantham was hired off of Mark Richt's staff at Georgia. After the Bulldogs gave up almost 30 points a game last season while going 8-5, there was not exactly wailing in Athens over Grantham's departure. The longtime NFL assistant is a 3-4 devotee but is inheriting a Louisville roster mostly recruited to run a four-man front. Regardless of scheme, Grantham's biggest challenge is to find replacements for departed safety standouts Calvin Pryor and Hakeem Smith.

5.) How does U of L replace three first-round NFL Draft picks?

In addition to Bridgewater, safety Pryor went 18th in the 2014 draft to the New York Jets, while pass rushing specialist Marcus Smith went 26th to Philadelphia.

An Alabama may be able to absorb the loss of three first-round talents without appreciable impact on the bottom line but it's hard to envision Louisville losing that kind of talent without feeling it.

Mark Story: (859) 231-3230. Email: mstory@herald-leader.com. Twitter: @markcstory. Blog: markstory.bloginky.com.

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