2012 Louisville Football Preview: Charlie Strong And His Sophomores

LOUISVILLE, KY - OCTOBER 21: Teddy Bridgewater #5 of the Louisville Cardinals celebrates a touchdown during the game against the Rutgers Scarlet Knights at Papa John's Cardinal Stadium on October 21, 2011 in Louisville, Kentucky. (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

Louisville was supposed to regress last fall after losing so many integral seniors from their bowl-champion 2010 squad. Instead, with an incredible number of freshmen and sophomores, they solidified their gains with another seven-win season. With almost no seniors, Charlie Strong's young squad has a high ceiling for 2013 and 2014. How much of that potential can they realize this fall? Related: Louisville's complete 2012 statistical profile, including projected starters, year-to-year trends, and rankings galore.

For more on Cardinals football, visit Louisville blog Card Chronicle, plus Big East blog Big East Coast Bias and SB Nation Indiana.

When Louisville's basketball team was making its first Final Four (or as it was known then, "semifinals") appearance in 1959, the Louisville football team was going 6-4 as a no-name independent, beating Bradley and Eastern Kentucky, losing to Xavier and Kent State.

When the basketball team made its third Final Four in 1975, the football team was going 1-10, beating only Chattanooga by a score of 6-3.

When the basketball team won its first national title in 1980, football went 5-6, with losses to Murray State and Temple.

When the basketball team won its second national title in 1986, football went 3-8 in Howard Schnellenberger's second year on the job. They played three opponents with winning records and lost all three by a combined score of 126-41.

We often speak of "basketball schools" and "football schools" as if they just exist that way for no specific reason. But there's always a reason. Louisville's state-mate Kentucky famously hired Bear Bryant in 1946 and finished ranked for five straight seasons (they went to the Orange Bowl in 1949, the Sugar Bowl in 1950), but he left, in part, because he knew he would never get the same level of support as basketball coach Adolph Rupp. The state of Kentucky appears predisposed to supporting basketball first and, potentially, horse racing second.

At the same time, however, Louisville's accomplishments over the last two decades and change show that you can win quite a few football games in the Bluegrass State. Schnellenberger broke through with a Fiesta Bowl title in 1990.

(Two thoughts on this fantastic video. 1. Nobody strutted like Howard Schnellenberger. 2. There has always been at least one Brohm on Louisville's football team.)

Before the Fiesta Bowl performance, the Cardinals had appeared in three bowl games. Since then, they have been to 12. They won 47 games from 2000-04, got called up from Conference USA to Big East, then damn near made the national title game in 2006. They have survived a couple of lesser hires (Ron Cooper went 13-20 from 1995-97, Steve Kragthorpe inherited a near-title contender and went 15-21 from 2007-09), they have survived being overshadowed by the basketball team (which made its ninth Final Four appearance this past spring), and for the second time in the last decade, they appear poised to break into the national spotlight. Charlie Strong's squad survived an incredible youth movement in 2011, and though the team will STILL be young for the next year or two (there are nine seniors on the 2012 squad), all the pieces seem to be falling into place nicely.

Whether Louisville ends up in the Big East, Big 12, or some other conference in the future, Strong is quickly building a foundation that will allow them to survive and potentially thrive. (And evidently the athletic director is prepared to spend serious money on him to keep him in town.) Basketball school? No matter.


Related: Check out Louisville's statistical profile.

Last Year

Here's what I said about Louisville almost exactly one year ago:

Like Steve Lavin at St. John's, Strong inherited an experienced team of Petrino and early-Kragthorpe leftovers and was able to offer significant, immediate improvement on both sides of the ball. His success prompted this Varsity Numbers column about race and college head coaches (and this NPR story), one of my favorites. But this year's encore will come with a much younger squad. The test has only just begun. […]

I thought Strong was a wonderful hire, and with some of the recruiting battles he has been winning, it's safe to assume this program is on an upward trajectory. But signs point to second-year regression. It's common with teams that take a huge, one-year leap forward anyway, and when you look at the lack of experience involved, it becomes even more likely, even if correlations between experience and success are not as strong as we might think. The schedule is pretty rough, with road trips to Kentucky, North Carolina, Cincinnati, West Virginia, UConn and South Florida, meaning Louisville will have to either sweep the home slate or pull an upset or two to reach another bowl. It's certainly doable, but I'm thinking no amount of Will Stein Positivity™ can make Louisville too successful in 2011.

Under normal circumstances, going 7-6 for the second consecutive year while your F/+ ranking slips from 37th to 44th would not be considered a sign of growth. For Louisville in 2011, however, it absolutely was. The Cardinals lost a wealth of seniors from the 2010 Beef O' Brady's Bowl championship squad and faced an uphill climb in 2011. And to say the least, they did not start out well. They lost at home to both Florida International and Marshall in the season's first month, prompting Charlie Strong to both fire his offensive coordinator and hand the reins over to youngsters. Freshman Teddy Bridgewater took over as starting quarterback, three of the four leading receivers were freshmen, three freshmen earned starts on the offensive line, freshman end B.J. Dubose and tackle Jamaine Brooks worked their way into the rotation, and freshman safety Calvin Pryor and corners Andrew Johnson, Terrell Floyd and Stephan Robinson did as well. This was quite possibly the youngest team in the country, but as is customary with young teams, Louisville improved by quite a bit as the season progressed.

First six games: Opponents 28.4, Louisville 25.4 (-3.0)
Last seven games: Louisville 29.5, Opponents 27.7 (+1.8)

The Cardinals won five of their final six in the regular season to finish a surprising 7-5. Not surprising: big things are now expected of the still-young squad moving forward. The projections might disagree a bit -- our Excel sheets tend to tamp down excitement for teams based on a shorter run of solid play -- but there is no question that Louisville fans have a lot to be excited about, whether football is their favorite, or second favorite, sport.

Offense

"Transition" was the name of the game for the Louisville offense last year.

Transition: only three starters returned from an offense that had improved dramatically the previous fall. Quarterbacks Adam Froman and Justin Burke, running back Bilal Powell and four starting offensive linemen all needed to be replaced.

Transition: Four games into the 2012 season, Charlie Strong oddly chose to replace offensive coordinator Mike Sanford. The Cardinals certainly hadn't performed well to that point (26.0 Adj. Points per game, 18.8 actual points per game), but the move was a bit confusing considering how well Sanford had pushed buttons the year before. Shawn Watson took over and did reasonably well in patching holes on the fly; over the final nine games, Louisville's averages improved to 28.5 Adj. Points and 23.3 actual points per game.

Transition: In the absence of Froman and Burke, cheery former walk-on Will Stein began the season as Louisville's starter. He wasn't terrible, but he got hurt in the third game of the season, and Quarterback Of The Future Teddy Bridgewater took over earlier than anticipated. He was hit-or-miss for a little while -- 62 percent completion rate, 5.8 yards per pass, five touchdowns, five interceptions -- with a young receiving corps, young line, et cetera. But when the switch flipped, the switch flipped. Over his last six starts, he raised his numbers to a 66 percent completion rate, 7.6 yards per pass, nine touchdowns and six interceptions. As anyone who watched the Belk Bowl can attest, Bridgewater took FAR too many hits; a young line and his own tendency to buy as much time as possible converged to get him sacked once for every 10 pass attempts (Louisville ranked an unacceptable 97th in Adj. Sack Rate). He will need to figure out where the line is between making plays and surviving, but if he does? Look out. He completed 19 of 21 passes for 257 yards and three touchdowns in Louisville's spring game, and while one should never pay too much attention to spring stats, those are some ridiculous spring stats.

The word for 2012: continuity. Bridgewater will find himself flanked by four interesting running backs, three intriguing returning wideouts (all sophomores), and six offensive linemen with starting experience (74 career starts), and he will be taking instruction from an offensive coordinator, Watson, who has now fully installed his own system. Expect more run-friendly sets, which could benefit the Cardinals in terms of both avoiding sacks and distributing the ball to the aforementioned four backs: juniors Dominique Brown, Jeremy Wright and Senorise Perry, and redshirt freshman Corvin Lamb. Advanced stats favor Perry in this race, ever so slightly, but all four should get touches.

When Bridgewater does throw, he'll have his pick of three exciting sophomores. Eli Rogers led the team in targets (58), receptions (41) and yards (454) last year; after a relatively slow start, he came on strong, catching 35 passes for 406 yards in his final nine contests.

As interesting as it is to look at what Louisville's offense could become this season, it is impossible to ignore the fact that, of the Cardinals' projected 2012 starters, nine are projected to return in 2013, seven in 2014. Rarely does a youth movement take hold as firmly as Louisville's did in 2011, and they could reap the benefits for years to come.

Defense

The offense may have the biggest star, but defense is where Charlie Strong has earned his living through the years. A defensive coordinator at South Carolina and Florida, Strong has long been known as an innovative coach who fields athletic, interesting units. (Those who own Chris Brown's The Essential Smart Football know that he is credited as one of the early adopters of the funky 3-3-5 defense, though he doesn't use it as his base defense anymore.)

Last year, while dealing with quite a bit of turnover itself, the Louisville defense held steady versus the run but showed some holes against the pass. They ranked 54th in Rushing S&P+ and 42nd in Adj. Line Yards but just 90th in Passing S&P+. Experience should help the secondary, but the Cardinals must deal with some interesting personnel losses in the front seven.

The Louisville line dealt with quite a few injuries and personnel issues last fall. Only three played in all 13 games, and only two recorded more than 20.0 tackles. That's good for future depth -- seven of 11 linemen who recorded at least 3.0 tackles return -- but the loss of end William Savoy (8.5 tackles for loss) could still be a tough one. Then again, junior Marcus Smith managed almost as many tackles for loss (5.5) in quite a bit less playing time. Smith, sophomore B.J. Dubose and junior B.J. Butler certainly look the part at end, and big tackles Jamaine Brooks and Brandon Dunn should combine well with quicker, smaller tackle Roy Philon.

The biggest loss comes at linebacker. Dexter Heyman and his team-leading 16 tackles for loss have departed for the Kansas City Chiefs; the good news, however, is that he is the only member of last year's linebacking corps no longer on the team. Preston Brown, Daniel Brown, Deiontrez Mount and interesting freshmen like Keith Brown should make this unit deeper and, perhaps, stronger.

The question mark of the defense might still be the secondary, though there is a wealth of potential breakthrough candidates. Corners Adrian Bushell and Andrew Johnson are as athletic as any duo in the Big East, strong safety Hakeem Smith is a ball hawk, and free safety Calvin Pryor is a hard hitter. This unit lacked consistency, experience, and, as with the line, continuity: of the 10 defensive backs who logged at least 7.5 tackles, only two (Smith and Pryor) played all 13 games. If the craftiness improves with age, and if the Cardinals can get contributions from youngsters like sophomore safety Kamal Hogan and redshirt freshman Charles Gaines, the defense should improve all around.

Defining Success

With the early hype -- the type of "they're young and exciting sleepers!" hype that tends to grow as a season approaches -- it might feel like anything less than a conference title will be disappointing. Road trips to Pittsburgh and Rutgers could be quite tricky, however, and with a non-conference slate that includes a visit from North Carolina and visits TO Florida International and Southern Miss, improvement of any kind in the win column would be at least semi-impressive. We'll set the overall bar, then, at eight wins. And let's face it -- you can win the Big East with eight wins.

Prognosis

Now is a pretty good time for Louisville to be getting its house in order on the football field. With the Big 12 potentially looking for new members, conference realignment drama could still suck the Cardinals into its vortex. And while you can live life as a basketball-first school if you want, you should still show enough on the gridiron to bring in your share of ratings.

Charlie Strong says so many of the right things ("Show me a team with bad grades, and I'll show you a bad football team."), and he waited so long to earn a head coaching position, that it is very easy to root for him to succeed. That Louisville was able to solidify its gains despite crazy youth in his second year on the job could say magnificent things about where this program his headed. The Cardinals won't be a Top 15 team in 2012 by any means (and they only might be a Top 25 team), but they should improve enough to justify a decent amount of hype, and they should absolutely be considered one of the teams most likely to win the Big East. It is impossible to avoid getting excited about Teddy Bridgewater and his enormous corps of backs and wideouts, and one just has to assume that Strong will begin to field better and better defenses as he works with more and more of his own personnel. Louisville has only nine seniors in 2012 and should continue to improve in coming seasons; but ongoing youth shouldn't prevent them from taking another step forward this fall as well.

For more on Cardinals football, visit Louisville blog Card Chronicle, plus Big East blog Big East Coast Bias and SB Nation Indiana.

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