Y'all know the deal: we get you the inside scoop on Virginia's football opponent every week we can. This week, Mike Rutherford of Card Chronicle takes on the 2014 Louisville Cardinals and tells us what to expect. They asked us some questions to, and posted our answers.
STL: Between Charlie Strong and Teddy Bridgewater, Louisville saw a good portion of the program's core leave during the offseason. Both had been integral to getting Louisville back into national prominence and title contention. Which of the two do Cardinals' fans feel is the bigger loss? Of lesser-known players to have departed from last year's squad, who left the biggest hole?
CC: I don't think there's any question that in the minds of most Louisville fans, the bigger loss is Bridgewater. Charlie Strong pulled the program out from one of its lowest times, but the man at the helm during the most successful period in the history of Cardinal football was Bobby Petrino. Plus, there was already more than a little bit of unrest over Strong's willingness to keep things slow and simple and defeat seemingly overmatched opponents by smaller margins. Obviously, that isn't Petrino's M.O., and most U of L fans enjoy that. Almost all level-headed Cardinal supporters will say that they're extremely thankful for the job Charlie Strong did while he was here, but I think there's also a fairly strong majority who view Petrino as an upgrade. As for Bridgewater, well, he's arguably the greatest quarterback to ever put on a Louisville jersey, so obviously his loss is a big deal.
Most football fans are familiar with Calvin Pryor, who was the first round pick of the New York Jets last summer, but less know about fellow safety Hakeem Smith. Smith started every game but his first one as a Cardinal during his four year college career, and left U of L owning the school record for consecutive starts. He was as sure a tackler as I can remember Louisville having, and his departure (along with Pryor's, obviously) have left the team with a lot of questions in the secondary, even after playing two games.
STL: Keeping with the theme of comings and goings, obviously the return of Bobby Petrino was the headliner among this season's newcomers. His first order of business seemed to be holding together strong recruiting classes that Strong's staff had compiled. Who are some of the newcomers who will keep the program moving ahead?
CC: There are a pretty sizable amount, but we'll stick with two.
The first is safety James Sample, who was a four-star recruit coming out of high school. He played sparingly at Washington before transferring to a JuCo and winding up at U of L. We already talked about the lack of depth of that position, so clearly his addition was a huge one for Petrino. Despite barely getting here before the start of fall camp, Sample started the season-opener against Miami and wound up picking off a pass and leading the team in tackles. It's hard to imagine what the safety position would look like without him.
The second is true freshman quarterback Reggie Bonnafon, a local kid whom Charlie Strong really wanted to bring with him to Texas after he got that job. Bonnafon stayed true to U of L, and showed the fans what he was capable of doing last week, finishing 8-of-11 through the air with one TD pass and running for two more. He's an extremely athletic kid who will likely have some packages put in place just for him before the end of the season. I think the entire fan base is extremely interested to see whether or not he takes the field at all against Virginia. Regardless, his debut performance undoubtedly forced Joe Tenuta to spend at least a little bit of time this week game-planning for him.
STL: During Petrino's first stint at Louisville, he introduced the world to the power spread: an offense that operates primarily out of the shotgun with three- and four-wide sets, but looks to establish the run. In Louisville's first few games, the run game seems to be the backbone of the offense. What are the similarities between this year's Cardinal offense and the ones of Petrino-era past? What are the new wrinkles?
CC: It's hard to say right now because the offense has been so vanilla up to this point. There have been some noticeable similarities that were absent under the two regimes that followed him -- use of the tight end, wheel route love, run/pass balance, etc. -- but Will Gardner isn't Brin Brohm or Stefan LeFors yet, so it feels like we've only seen the tip of the "new Petrino" iceberg.
Petrino loved big backs during his first stint at Louisville (Michael Bush, Eric Shelton, Kolby Smith, Anthony Allen and on and on), and it appears that trend is continuing. Dominique Brown carried 33 times for 143 yards against Miami, and then Petrino let true freshman L.J. Scott, who's even more of a bruiser than Brown, run all over Murray State. Now attention turns to former Auburn star Michael Dyer, who looked like his former self during the spring, but has missed the first two games of the season because of a thigh contusion. He's listed behind Brown on this week's depth chart, but your guess is as good as mine as far as what to expect from him.
STL: Week 1, welcome to the ACC, here's Miami and Duke Johnson. But the Louisville D looked up to the task, holding the Canes to under 250 total yards and forcing 3 turnovers. Week Two against Murray State, the Racers didn't even hit 50 yards on the ground. What makes this defense work? Who are the leaders, from both a tactical standpoint and a pure talent perspective?
CC: Losing a number of key players (including two first round draft picks) and bringing in a new defensive coordinator who was planning on installing a completely new system, it's easy to understand why Louisville fans were so worried about the defense heading into the season. What so many people forgot is that the players who did return were part of a unit that was ranked No. 1 in the country at the end of last season. Clearly that experience combined with some solid newcomers and the entire group fully buying into what Todd Grantham is selling has worked out pretty well so far. Of course it hasn't hurt that U of L's first two opponents have been an FCS team and a Miami squad starting a true freshman at quarterback.
Lorenzo Mauldin has one of the best backstories in college football, and he's the unquestioned leader of the defense. In Grantham's 3-4 defense, he's seamlessly made the move from defensive end to outside linebacker. Fellow linebackers Deiontrez Mount, Keith Kelsey and James Burgess have also been terrific through the first two weeks of the season. Burgess flies around the field, Mount comes off the edge nearly as well as Mauldin, and Kelsey has been the most apt at sticking his nose in the middle and stopping the run.
Up front, everyone knew that Sheldon Rankins was going to have to step up in a major way for the unit to function at the best of its ability, and so far it's looked as though he's in the process of making that star turn. The biggest concern in the trenches heading into the season was the nose tackle position, which is huge in Grantham's defense. The hope was that oft-troubled Jamaine Brooks would finally be able to get healthy and fill that role, but he was dismissed by Petrino before spring practice even got started. JuCo transfer Pio Vatuvei and sophomore DeAngelo Brown don't have quite the same size as Brooks, but they've done a great job at the position so far.
Again, the secondary was the paramount concern heading into the season, and it's had its moments both good and bad through two weeks. The biggest shift has been moving Terrell Floyd, a two-year starter at cornerback, over to safety to combat the lack of depth there. James Sample and former four-star recruit Gerod Holliman have been the other two guys manning the back of the defense, and they each have one interception apiece. Charles Gaines is one of the best corners in the conference, and the player your fan base is most likely to loathe on Saturday. He will talk trash after a good play, a bad play or a play he had absolutely nothing to do with. More times than not, he's able to back it up. Andrew Johnson is the starter opposite Gaines who typically lines up on the weak side of the field. He has more size than Gaines and is a better tackler, but doesn't have anywhere near the same speed or instincts.
STL: Taking a step back to look at the broader landscape, Louisville coming into the ACC has been a big change for the conference. (Not everyone is on the Atlantic Coast! Look, we have a new logo!) From a football standpoint, no question the conference is stronger than where Louisville left. In five years, where do you see Louisville football in relation to the other teams in the ACC? To other teams nationally? What about in basketball?
CC: I think everyone's hoping that U of L's recruiting is going to take a massive step in the right direction, and we're already seeing that start to happen. In the last 10 years, Louisville has had a top 30 recruiting class exactly once. As it stands right now, Petrino's 2015 class is ranked No. 27 by the 247 Sports folks. If he can consistently pull in top 30-ish classes, then I would expect the Cards to be very competitive in the ACC for the foreseeable future.
Louisville fans have gotten into something of a bad habit of expecting double digit win seasons. I suppose that's what happens when you haven't been an underdog in a game in about 20 months. Playing in a conference like the ACC, all parties associated with U of L football are going to have to get used to the notion that losing a game isn't the end of the world; you can't just show up and expect to go 10-2 or 11-1 anymore. Playing in the same division as Florida State and Clemson, I think just making the conference championship game every five years or so should be a goal for the program. I know the fan base wants to hear that they're going to be there every single year, but sooner or later I think an adjusted perspective is going to take hold.
As far as basketball is concerned, Louisville expects to contend for conference championships and national championships every single year. With the job Rick Pitino is doing on the recruiting trail (his class of 2015 is currently ranked No. 1 in the country), I can't imagine that's going to change anytime soon.
STL: Louisville seems to have things squared away on both sides of the ball. Virginia has one of the nation's best defenses, but an offense that has appeared ... anemic, to put it mildly. Does Louisville face problems with their first road trip of the season? Bottom line, who ya got?
CC: I really think that U of L's in for a much tougher road trip than most of the other fans I've talked to. Will Gardner didn't exactly set Murray State on fire through the air, and I don't think this is a defense that Louisville's going to be able to run over the same way they did the Racers and Miami. Plus, this is a team that hasn't played on the road yet, and one whose idea of an away game is playing in front of a 3/4 empty Lincoln Financial Field or Raymond James Stadium. Basically, I'm expecting to see very few points early, and a game that's not put away until the 4th quarter. I'll take Louisville, 27-17.