By William Qualkinbush.
In its first game as a member of the Atlantic Coast Conference, Louisville hosts Miami on Labor Day. Welcome to the league, indeed.
The ACC’s newest acquisition is poised to bring a new set of circumstances into the fold in 2014. With a new coach, a new quarterback, and a new conference, a program that won 12 games a year ago is looking to hit the reset button. It brings a strange dynamic to the table, to be sure.
Bobby Petrino has done a fun-filled lap from Louisville to, well, Louisville. Along the way were stops with the Falcons (left in the middle of a bad season), Arkansas (going well until he wrecked his Harley), and Western Kentucky (may as well have been the step directly beneath Louisville). His offensive mind is excellent, and his organizational and program-building skills are off the charts. The Cardinal fan base knows this as well as anyone since he led them to a 41-9 record in his four seasons with the program.
The ACC will actually be the third different conference in which Petrino has coached the Cardinals. They moved from Conference USA to the Big East after his second season at the helm of the program, so he is no stranger to some of the ins and outs of transition.
He will be bringing along a new quarterback in sophomore Will Gardner. The Douglas, GA native was impressive in the spring but will have a hard time filling the shoes of Teddy Bridgewater. Gardner’s 6’5” frame and poise in the pocket seem to jive well with Petrino’s system in theory.
Leading rusher Dominique Brown returns after rushing for 825 yards a season ago, so Gardner will be leaning on him to help balance things out on the attack. But Brown may not even get the lion’s share of the workload if former Auburn stud Michael Dyer can keep his nose clean and win the job. Dyer carried the ball 44 times as he got his feet wet last season.
One area Petrino would be wise to hang his hat is wide receiver. Seniors DeVante Parker and Eli Rogers combined to catch 99 balls for 1,421 yards and 16 touchdowns—12 of which went to Parker. Senior tight end Gerald Christian averaged more than 15 yards per catch and caught four touchdowns himself, while sophomore James Quick (aptly named) should be a major impact player out wide and in the return game.
All of this should take place behind one of America’s more experienced offensive lines. The entire left side from center to tackle will be made up of seniors, while junior right tackle Ryan Mack brings a year’s worth of starting experience on the other side. This should give Gardner a quality security blanket for much of the season.
Defense is another story altogether for the Cardinals. Todd Grantham comes over from Georgia to lead the unit, which lost seven starters off of last season’s elite crew that led the country in total defense. Honestly, the most talented players in the group might be the load of malcontents that just transferred in from Grantham’s former program and are ineligible to compete this season.
Inside linebacker James Burgess is the unquestioned leader of the group. His 72 tackles are best among returners; in fact, he is the only player on Louisville’s roster that reached 50 stops last season. No one else in the linebacking corps really stands out, but there is young talent to be tapped into if Grantham has the patience. He really has no choice but to do so since he fully intends to install his preferred 3-4 scheme.
Senior end Lorenzo Mauldin anchors the defensive line. He registered 9.5 sacks a year ago, second-best on the team, and was tops among returning players with 12 tackles for loss. He will have a new role in a new system, but his unblockable reputation should follow him through the new season.
Safety Calvin Pryor was drafted in the first round of the NFL Draft, and his absence will be felt in the running game. But returning both starters at cornerback should make things more manageable for Petrino and Grantham. Charles Gaines and Terell Floyd combined for nine interceptions and a pair of touchdowns last season. Jermaine Reve is a junior who played significant snaps as a backup last year, but he has been injured all offseason. Safety might be dicey if he cannot step in and seize a major role.
The version of the Cardinals that takes the field on Labor Day might not be recognizable to fans of the program, but it might look more like a team that Petrino feels comfortable leading. With so much change, it might take a while before the college football world gets a feel for what Petrino’s second stint in Louisville will be.