The young Louisville Cardinals are looking for a team identity and a little bit of leadership. Coach Charlie Strong knows facing a veteran Murray State team might help them learn a little bit about both.
"This is a young team still searching for an identity, and we're nowhere near where we need to be. We understand that," Strong said. "What's going to be key for us is how quickly we can take this young talent, develop it and with the limited number of seniors we have, provide the leadership necessary to take this program and move it forward."
The Cardinals lost 25 seniors and return 11 starters from a 2010 team that finished 7-6 and snapped a three-year bowl drought. The Racers squad they'll face Thursday to open the 2011 season returns 19 starters and was picked to finish second in the Ohio Valley Conference.
Strong has planned to rely on his more experienced defense to carry the team this season, but Murray State's offense will do its best to expose the Cardinals.
Racers Coach Chris Hatcher employs a fast-paced "Hatch Attack" spread offense that prominently features OVC pre-season offensive player of the year and Walter Payton Award candidate Casey Brockman at quarterback and senior running back Mike Harris. Brockman started the final six games in 2010, passing for 2,442 yards and 15 touchdowns while rushing for seven TDs, and Harris rushed for 904 and 10 touchdowns in seven games before being benched by an injury.
It will be orchestrated by new offensive coordinator Mitch Stewart, but Hatcher said there won't be any difference in the way it looks.
"It's the same offense," Hatcher said. "You got a different guy calling the plays which, he has his own way of doing things, but it's the same offense we've run for a long, long time, so that's not even an issue as far as that goes, it's exactly the same."
Strong knows Hatcher and Stewart will have Brockman test inexperienced cornerbacks Anthony Conner, Andrew Johnson and Titus Teague.
"That's why I say I'm so anxious to get out there on the field and see how we're going to play and how we're going to react because the ball's going to be thrown," Strong said. "We're a pressure team. We love to pressure, so can we hold up and go cover against a good-throwing team."
Nowhere is the Cardinals' inexperience more evident than on the offensive line, a unit that ranked sixth in the nation last season after allowing just 18 sacks. The lone returning player from that line, center Mario Benavides, won't play against Murray State because of an ankle injury that has kept him out of much of fall camp.
The Cardinals also lost 1,405-yard rusher Bilal Powell and top receivers Doug Beaumont and Cameron Graham, who combined for a total of 76.2 yards receiving per game but return senior tailback Victor Anderson and wide receivers Josh Bellamy, Andrell Smith and Josh Chichester.
Strong plans to start junior quarterback Will Stein, who started two games as a freshman walk-on but made only two appearances last season as a backup, but wants to throw freshman Teddy Bridgewater and sophomore Dominique Brown in against the Racers as well to see how they fare.
At 5 feet 10 inches and 185 pounds, Stein knows he may not look like a typical quarterback, but he's confident he can manage the offense.
"I think I can extend plays pretty well," he said. "With my size you've got to have different qualities about you as a quarterback. You can't just sit back in the pocket all day, so I can move around, I can make plays. I think I'm an overall smart quarterback. I don't want to sound egotistical or anything, but I know how to manage the team."