Team to Watch - Louisville
August 22, 2014
By Bruce Marshall
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Teams to Watch: North Carolina · Marshall
Here we go again! The rollercoaster ride that is Bobby Petrino has returned for an encore at Louisville (SUR 12-1, PSR 6-7), completing a roundabout (or maybe we should say "Roustabout" instead, honoring one of our favorite Elvis movies when he tried to romance Sue Ane Langdon and rode a motorcycle, a well-publicized Petrino behavior trait and mode of transport in recent years) seven-year odyssey around various locales in the South.
The 'Ville that Petrino re-inherits from Charlie Strong will also now be operating out of a higher-priced neighborhood in the ACC and not Conference USA or the Big East, as in Petrino's first tour of duty. Though it should be noted that the Cards have fared pretty well when stepping up the past few seasons, romping past ACC rep Miami by a 36-9 count in last December's Russell Athletic Bowl, and beating SEC Florida in the Sugar Bowl the year before. And while the top of the ACC is treacherous, the likes of Virginia, Wake Forest, NC State, and Boston College (all new foes in 2014) hardly look any better than the middle-rung Big East and AAC sorts that Strong's Louisville routinely handled the past few years.
When last seen at Papa John's Stadium at the end of the 2006 season, Petrino had led the Cardinals to a 41-9 record he previous four seasons and a BCS berth in the 2007 Orange Bowl. But that was all before a dizzying trek to the Atlanta Falcons, Arkansas, and Western Kentucky, with Petrino leaving plenty of scorched earth and "good riddance" references from respective fan bases.
All of that, however, has made little difference to Louisville, which has indicated before that it doesn't mind employing coaches with some baggage (such as Rick Pitino), taking Al Davis' famous "Just win, baby" to heart. Whatever ethical shortcomings attached to Petrino and his earlier Card regime were apparently easy to overlook, too, because Bobby won, an end that seems to justify all means at Louisville. When Petrino successor Steve Kragthorpe tried to clean out some of Petrino's bad seeds left over in the program, the locals revolted, especially because the Cards regressed quickly in the W-L column upon Petrino's 2007 departure.
Petrino has also reconvened some old friends on staff, including Garrick McGee, Petrino's o.c. at Arkansas who had been head coach at UAB the past two seasons. Given the choice of continuing to coach in front of empty seats at Legion Field, or coordinating the offense of an expected ACC contender, McGee's choice was obvious.
Petrino returns to a program that also scaled some impressive the heights under predecessor Strong, who left for the Texas job after leading the Cards to the BCS in 2012 and winning another 12 games last season. Though there are some obvious lineup holes to fill from a year ago, we would discount those who believe the Cards might be due for a big drop-off. Rather, this looks like a situation in which an operator like Petrino can really flourish.
Moreover, the noted trash talking by recent Cards teams, which made some foes look as intimidated as Floyd Patterson once did when stepping into the ring vs. Sonny Liston, will also be embraced by Petrino.
Concern number one at Papa John's is not as much Petrino succeeding Strong but rather soph Will Gardner replacing Teddy Bridgewater (Vikings first-round pick) at QB. Unlike others, we are not conceding a significant drop-off at QB; consider that Petrino has rarely been caught short at the position, and Gardner allayed many of those fears in the spring game when completing 32 of 37 passes for 542 yards. Though spring games are notoriously deceiving and often low-key, 542 passing yards would be spectacular in any setting, be it a Strat-O-Matic game or on the sandlot. Observers were most impressed that Gardner had developed chemistry and timing with star WR DeVante Parker and the rest of the 'Ville's talented receiving corps by the end of spring drills.
Indeed, many believe Parker's decision to bypass the NFL Draft and return for his senior season had already mitigated some of the potential damage caused by Bridgewater's early exit. Parker's late-season surge in 2013 and dominant effort (9 catches for 142 yards) in the bowl romp past Miami provide a dimension for the offense that an offensive whiz such as Petrino can exploit.
Gardner will also be surrounded by every weapon an unproven QB needs--halfbacks, wide receivers, tight ends, and four returning linemen. Besides Parker (who also caught 12 TD passes last season), speedsters Eli Rogers (44 catches LY), Kai De La Cruz (18.1 yp reception in 2013), Robert Clark and Michaelee Harris are all established receiving threats. As well as sr. TE Christian Gardner, pegged as a breakout star this fall after shining in spring drills. Gardner's 28 catches last fall were also good for over 15 yards per catch, an extremely impressive average for a tight end.
If anything, Petrino might also believe in a power running game more so than predecessor Strong, and the RB pool is the deepest on the team. Dominique Brown led Card backs LY with 825 yards, but Auburn transfer Michael Dyer and early enrollee true frosh L.J. Scott were the best-looking runners in spring. As long as the 'Ville OL (with four returning starters) holds up, Petrino has his complement to the passing game.
Though only four starters return on the defensive side, it was the number-one rated stop unit in the country last season, allowing only 251 ypg. The new faces in the lineup, and the upgraded ACC schedule, figure to inflate those numbers, but Petrino's new D.C. Todd Grantham (imported from Mark Richt's Georgia staff) is not exactly going to be working with his hands tied behind his back.
If there is a potential trouble spot for the platoon, it could be in the secondary, especially at the safety spots after the departure of a pair of three-year starters, including the decorated Calvin Pryor (Jets first-round pick). A projected starter at SS, Jermaine Reve (who had moved from slot corner), damaged his knee in spring and appears iffy for the fall. Juco and ex-Washington Huskies transfer James Sample likely gets the next call at SS. Better injury news might come at the LB spots, where jr. Keith Brown missed all of 2013 plus spring work due to knee problems, but should be ready to go in the fall.
Grantham's challenge will be rebuilding the middle of the defense--both tackles, interior linebackers, and the aforementioned safeties. But if recent recruiting has been as upgraded as the past few seasons have suggested, Grantham has some building blocks to use.
Even moving into an upgraded league (ACC) and without the coach (Strong) who won 23 games over the past two seasons, underestimate the 'Ville at your own risk. Like him or not, Bobby Petrino has a proven record of winning and teams consistently putting 40 or more points on board. Remember, too, that Petrino's last three Arkansas teams posted a combined 17-7-1 record as chalk, much like his last three 'Ville teams earlier in the past decade posted a 24-11 mark as a favorite.
What we're really saying is to watch out for these guys.
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