LOUISVILLE — At No. 25, Louisville enjoys its first pre-season ranking since 2007. Well, perhaps "enjoy" isn't the right word.
Cardinals Coach Charlie Strong distanced himself from the ranking and the implication that it bestows the favorite role on Louisville going into Sunday's opener against Kentucky.
"We will always stay the hunter," Strong said Monday. "Each week we prepare like we're always the underdog."
Strong said he told his players, "Let's make sure in this room we know exactly who we are."
Alex Kupper, one of U of L's five veteran offensive linemen, suggested that the Cardinals will not look at the 2012 season as an opportunity to take bows.
"We've only scratched the surface," Kupper said of the Cards, who are overwhelming favorites to win the Big East title. "We want to go out and prove ourselves. Show everybody we mean business."
Louisville has gone from rebuilding mode to conference favorite in a year. With the ranking, Strong said he has looked for signs of complacency, self-satisfaction and arrogance.
Although noting a "really good, physical" pre-season camp, Strong said the Cards have not achieved the goal of improving each day.
"Our team is still learning how to work," he said. "They don't understand every second is very meaningful. What they have to realize — and what we have to continue to teach them — is it's all about hard work and just team effort.
"We're not a team that can turn the switch on and off. That switch has to always be on."
Strong lauded Kentucky as a "very good football team" that, like Louisville, will be dependent on relatively young players. Specifically, Strong noted the challenge presented by UK's defensive line.
"We want to run the football," he said. "A concern is can we move those guys?"
Louisville returns Teddy Bridgewater at quarterback. He was the Big East Rookie of the Year last season. Several of his favorite receivers also return, including Andrell Smith, whom Strong said had a "most productive camp" this month.
The Cards have not settled on a first-string running back. Each of the top candidates — Dominique Brown, Jeremy Wright and Senorise Perry — bring different attributes to the role, said Strong, who added that a decision could be made later this week.
No such claim was made for the kicking game, where Louisville must find a new place kicker and punter. None of the candidates have played in a college game, nor have any won the job in pre-season workouts.
"We're not very pleased how it's going in the kicking game," Strong said.
The candidates to kick field goals and extra points are freshmen John Wallace and Josh Appleby, plus sophomore Matthew Nakatani.
"We're missing a lot of field goals in practice," Strong said. "There's no consistency at all."
Sophomore Ryan Johnson and Appleby are competing for the role of punter.
Strong spoke of a basic, all-encompassing goal for Louisville: After each snap, play hard and play fast, display discipline and confidence.
"We want to carry ourselves with an attitude of dominance," Strong said.
But the Cards want to avoid too much confidence."We can't be complacent," Kupper said. "We can't roll the ball out there and expect to win."