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The big 2014 Louisville football guide: The hitman goes to work

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Bobby Petrino was brought back to Louisville to do one thing: win. And he'll probably do so. He inherits a strong stable of offensive weapons, and though the defense will regress, the Cardinals are immediately one of their new league's best teams.

Andy Lyons

SB Nation 2014 College Football Countdown

Confused? Check out the advanced-stats glossary here.

1. Like hiring a hitman

Hiring Bobby Petrino will allow you to meet a goal you want to accomplish. You won't feel good about yourself, and you'll probably end up with regrets. But he will do the one thing you're asking him to do.

I expressed my opinions of Louisville's hire of Petrino in a Coaching Grades piece back in January.

We'll put aside the general tackiness of this hire, that it sets an awful example for players (if you're into that sort of thing) ... that Louisville is basically welcoming back the guy who cheated on the program, then dumped it seven years ago ... that there's a chance that, despite the "baby, I've changed" rhetoric, he leaves Louisville for a sexier job again in the coming years ... that even though we know that winning is all that matters, we don't necessarily enjoy having that principle shoved so blatantly in our faces.

Indeed, let's put that aside. This makes quite a bit of sense on paper ... we think. [...]

The problem, if one exists, isn't what's on his résumé; it's what's not. When he left Louisville, successor Steve Kragthorpe won just 15 games in three seasons. When he left Arkansas (because of a literal extra-marital situation, instead of the figurative one mentioned above), the Hogs went 7-17 in 2012-13. Were these just poor hires by these respective schools, or were there cracks in the foundation that might actually trip Petrino up if he sticks around in the same place for long enough? We'll see.

If Petrino sticks around as long as he says he will, we'll finally get an idea for what kind of program builder he is. It would be a first. Still, while he's never stayed more than four seasons at one spot, the guy's 83-30 in nine years as an FBS head coach. He won fewer than eight games in a year just once, in his first season at Arkansas. (He won 29 games in the three following years.) He engineered two top-six finishes at Louisville in 2004 and 2006, then did it again at Arkansas in 2011.

He is his own worst enemy, and he's made plenty of enemies through the years, but he's back in Louisville, and he's going to win some games. That much we know.

Now that we've got that out of the way, let's talk about 2014.

2. This seems familiar

Exciting sophomore quarterback, high-upside receiving corps, questions on defense. Sound familiar?

It sounds a lot like Petrino's 2009 Arkansas team, one that featured Ryan Mallett throwing to exciting receivers and an athletic defense that was a little too young to be a top-30 unit. That team went 8-5, then improved as Mallett and the offense gelled.

It's a shaky comparison, yes. This Louisville offense has a more experienced offense, and while 2009 Arkansas' defense was done in by its secondary, Louisville's is more likely to be done in by a young defensive front. But what Petrino is implementing in Louisville should take relatively quickly. Last year, he inherited a WKU offense that was running Stanford power; by comparison, the receivers he finds at Papa John's Stadium will be very much to his liking.

Louisville will score, and the prospects that Charlie Strong left behind for defensive coordinator Todd Grantham should be at least reasonably effective, despite both youth up front and the move from a 4-3 to a 3-4. This isn't a team likely to continue the Cardinals' recent pace of wins -- 11-2 in 2012, 12-1 in 2013 -- but Louisville could easily be the third-best team in its new league. Not a bad place to start.

2013 Schedule & Results

Record: 12-1 | Adj. Record: 12-1 | Final F/+ Rk: 12
Date Opponent Opp. F/+ Rk Score W-L Adj. Score Adj. W-L 5-gm Adj. Avg.
1-Sep Ohio 104 49-7 W 50.0 - 18.6 W
7-Sep Eastern Kentucky N/A 44-7 W 36.0 - 16.7 W
14-Sep at Kentucky 97 27-13 W 34.2 - 28.2 W
21-Sep Florida International 125 72-0 W 47.8 - (-5.7) W
5-Oct at Temple 98 30-7 W 35.5 - 19.7 W 25.2
10-Oct Rutgers 91 24-10 W 39.7 - 14.9 W 23.9
18-Oct Central Florida 21 35-38 L 50.0 - 31.1 W 23.8
26-Oct at South Florida 99 34-3 W 39.9 - 19.2 W 26.7
8-Nov at Connecticut 93 31-10 W 30.1 - 20.8 W 17.9
16-Nov Houston 46 20-13 W 25.0 - 12.7 W 17.2
23-Nov Memphis 83 24-17 W 28.5 - 30.2 L 11.9
5-Dec at Cincinnati 64 31-24 W 41.5 - 22.3 W 12.0
28-Dec vs. Miami 36 36-9 W 39.7 - 6.3 W 14.5
Category Offense Rk Defense Rk Spec. Tms. Rk
F/+ +11.8% 23 +15.1% 10 +2.0% 28
Points Per Game 35.2 25 12.2 2
Adj. Points Per Game 38.3 10 18.1 5

3. Great, then good

I was right and wrong about Louisville in 2013. After the Cardinals' thumping of 11-1 Florida in the 2013 Sugar Bowl, expectations for the 2013 season grew unfairly high. Suddenly people were considering Louisville a top-5 or top-10 team after the Cardinals only played at an elite level once or twice. I love talking about up-and-coming programs, but I found myself repeating the "tap the brakes on Louisville, guys, they're not an elite team" mantra quite often. Quite often.

In the end, the Cardinals indeed were not an elite team or a national title contender. But they came a lot closer than I expected. And over the first two-thirds of the season (aside from basically one quarter against UCF), they were indeed every bit as elite as I said they wouldn't be.

  • Adj. Points Per Game (first 8 games): Louisville 41.6, Opponent 15.6 (plus-26.0)
  • Adj. Points Per Game (next 4 games): Louisville 31.3, Opponent 21.5 (plus-9.8)

A fluky, last-second home loss to a strong UCF team ended Louisville's title hopes, and the Cardinals had almost instantly vanished from national consciousness by the morning of October 19. But while the invisibility seemed to impact their play a bit -- they won their final three AAC games by just seven points each -- they kept winning.

The semi-lull knocked season averages down a bit, but the Charlie Strong era still ended with 23 wins in 26 games; Louisville had won just 10 of 27 when he took the job in 2010. Strong left for Texas, stars Teddy Bridgewater and Calvin Pryor left early for the pros, and most of the defensive line graduated.

But Strong's south Florida recruiting has left the Cardinals with a strong base of talent on defense, and if Petrino coaches up the skill positions as he typically does, this should be a pretty good team in 2014. Not amazing, but pretty good. He's inheriting a program that is infinitely better shape than the one Strong inherited.

Offense

FIVE FACTORS -- OFFENSE
Raw Category Rk Opp. Adj. Category Rk
EXPLOSIVENESS IsoPPP 1.16 56 IsoPPP+ 100.8 56
EFFICIENCY Succ. Rt. 50.6% 6 Succ. Rt. + 115.6 17
FIELD POSITION Def. Avg. FP 28.7 47 Def. FP+ 101.4 41
FINISHING DRIVES Pts. Per Trip in 40 4.8 20 Redzone S&P+ 98.6 68
TURNOVERS EXPECTED 14.9 ACTUAL 10 -4.9
Category Yards/
Game Rk
S&P+ Rk Success
Rt. Rk
PPP+ Rk
OVERALL 28 24 17 36
RUSHING 87 42 37 65
PASSING 16 18 10 22
Standard Downs 19 15 37
Passing Downs 38 23 95
Q1 Rk 28 1st Down Rk 33
Q2 Rk 26 2nd Down Rk 26
Q3 Rk 19 3rd Down Rk 9
Q4 Rk 25

Quarterback

Note: players in bold below are 2014 returnees. Players in italics are questionable with injury/suspension.

Player Ht, Wt 2014
Year
Rivals Comp Att Yards TD INT Comp
Rate
Sacks Sack Rate Yards/
Att.
Teddy Bridgewater 303 427 3970 31 4 71.0% 23 5.1% 8.4
Will Gardner 6'5, 230 So. 3 stars (5.6) 8 12 112 2 0 66.7% 3 20.0% 6.5
Brett Nelson 6'4, 231 Sr. 3 stars (5.5)
Kyle Bolin 6'3, 196 RSFr. 3 stars (5.7)
Pat Thomas 6'4, 185 Jr. 3 stars (5.6)
Reggie Bonnafon 6'3, 205 Fr. 3 stars (5.6)

4. All eyes on Gardner

Louisville's gonna score

It goes without saying for anybody who saw him play, but Teddy Bridgewater was a really, really good college quarterback. You don't need numbers to tell you that, but looking back on the numbers again is still rather jarring. The 31-to-4 TD-to-INT ratio. The 70 percent completion rate over two years. The random, almost perfect games -- 35-for-45 for 447 against Miami, 25-for-29 for 344 against USF, 23-for-28 for 355 against Ohio. The level of competition dinged Louisville's offense a bit; the Cardinals finished just ("just") 23rd in Off. F/+ and 18th in Passing S&P+. Still, Bridgewater set the bar impossibly high for his successor.

That successor's name appears to be Will Gardner. Let's say that his spring game performance -- 32-for-37 for 542 yards and four scores -- allayed concerns a bit. The redshirt sophomore from Douglas, Georgia, has size, arm strength, an experienced line, and potentially elite receivers, and if competition matters, he'll certainly find a steady dose of it for the top spot on the depth chart. Petrino's never been known as an elite recruiter, but he doesn't struggle to find quarterbacks, even on rosters he inherits.

(Pro tip: if you find yourself Googling for background information, be sure to type in "Will Gardner Louisville" instead of just "Will Gardner." Then again, maybe you want to read a bunch of articles about The Good Wife. I'm not here to judge.)

Running Back

Player Pos. Ht, Wt 2014
Year
Rivals Rushes Yards TD Yards/
Carry
Hlt Yds/
Carry
Opp.
Rate
Dominique Brown RB 6'2, 216 Sr. 4 stars (5.8) 163 825 8 5.1 5.3 38.7%
Senorise Perry RB 141 677 6 4.8 4.3 41.8%
Michael Dyer RB 5'9, 215 Sr. 5 stars (6.1) 44 223 2 5.1 4.8 40.9%
Teddy Bridgewater QB 40 259 1 6.5 3.4 62.5%
Brandon Radcliff RB 5'9, 216 So. 3 stars (5.6) 17 91 1 5.4 3.1 47.1%
Corvin Lamb RB 5'9, 212 Jr. 3 stars (5.6) 4 13 0 3.3 0.8 50.0%
L.J. Scott RB 6'0, 215 Fr. 3 stars (5.7)





Receiving Corps

Player Pos. Ht, Wt 2014
Year
Rivals Targets Catches Yards Catch Rate Target
Rate
%SD Yds/
Target
NEY Real Yds/
Target
RYPR
Damian Copeland WR 83 58 780 69.9% 19.4% 53.3% 9.4 106 9.7 120.0
DeVante Parker WR-X 6'3, 209 Sr. 3 stars (5.7) 80 55 885 68.8% 18.7% 57.4% 11.1 240 9.4 136.2
Eli Rogers WR-W 5'10, 182 Sr. 4 stars (5.8) 55 44 536 80.0% 12.9% 55.3% 9.7 56 8.6 82.5
Gerald Christian TE 6'3, 242 Sr. 4 stars (5.9) 36 28 426 77.8% 8.4% 74.1% 11.8 116 12.5 65.6
Robert Clark WR-W 5'9, 173 Sr. 3 stars (5.5) 34 25 219 73.5% 8.0% 39.3% 6.4 -65 4.5 33.7
Dominique Brown RB 6'2, 216 Sr. 4 stars (5.8) 30 24 228 80.0% 7.0% 68.0% 7.6 -34 8.4 35.1
Michaelee Harris WR-Z 6'2, 202 Sr. 4 stars (5.9) 26 15 195 57.7% 6.1% 50.0% 7.5 3 7.2 30.0
Senorise Perry RB 22 18 178 81.8% 5.2% 46.7% 8.1 -17 10.0 27.4
Ryan Hubbell TE 21 14 236 66.7% 4.9% 77.8% 11.2 69 10.8 36.3
Kai De La Cruz WR-X 6'0, 186 Sr. 2 stars (5.4) 17 15 271 88.2% 4.0% 30.0% 15.9 114 13.2 41.7
James Quick WR-Z 6'2, 171 So. 4 stars (6.0) 12 6 73 50.0% 2.8% 54.5% 6.1 -10 6.7 11.2
Lamar Atkins FB 5'11, 216 So. 2 stars (5.2) 5 3 11 60.0% 1.2% 100.0% 2.2 -27 1.5 1.7
Matt Milton WR-X 6'5, 205 Sr. 4 stars (5.9)
Keith Towbridge TE 6'5, 263 So. 3 stars (5.5)
Cornelius Sturghill WR 5'11, 180 Fr. 3 stars (5.6)
Cameron Polk WR-Z 6'2, 185 Fr. 3 stars (5.6)
Micky Crum TE 6'4, 250 Fr. 3 stars (5.6)
Charles Standberry WR 6'3, 216 Fr. 3 stars (5.6)

5. A few more big plays wouldn't hurt

Louisville's offense was just about as efficient as anybody's in 2013, but when the Cardinals stalled out, it was most likely because of a lack of big plays. The passing game was solid in this regard -- three of the top four receivers averaged at least 13.4 yards per catch, and DeVante Parker averaged 16.1 -- but the running game was mostly devoid. Louisville had only 61 rushes of 10+ yards (79th in the country) and 14 of 20+ (76th). That held back the offense a bit, but only so much.

Still, efficiency is significant, and Louisville had it. Petrino offenses tend to have it, too. At WKU last season, Petrino's Hilltoppers ranked just 100th in IsoPPP+ (explosiveness) but 60th in Success Rate+ (efficiency). With two of three running backs, four of the top five receivers, and tight end Gerald Christian returning, Gardner will have plenty of efficiency weapons around him. Christian and Eli Rogers are two of the best efficiency guys in the country, and Parker is a potential All-American. Plus, former blue-chipper James Quick is patiently waiting his turn on the second string. Combine that with one of the most experienced lines in FBS, and one has to assume this offense will click. Maybe there's a drop-off simply because of Bridgewater's absence, but there might not be much of one.

Offensive Line

Category Adj.
Line Yds
Std.
Downs
LY/carry
Pass.
Downs
LY/carry
Opp.
Rate
Power
Success
Rate
Stuff
Rate
Adj.
Sack Rate
Std.
Downs
Sack Rt.
Pass.
Downs
Sack Rt.
Team 108.9 3.01 3.53 42.6% 71.4% 21.2% 106.7 5.2% 5.4%
Rank 33 55 38 27 45 92 62 79 46
Player Pos. Ht, Wt 2014
Year
Rivals Career Starts Honors/Notes
Jake Smith C 6'4, 312 Sr. 3 stars (5.5) 38 1st All-AAC
Jamon Brown LT 6'6, 350 Sr. 3 stars (5.6) 27 1st All-AAC
John Miller LG 6'2, 321 Sr. 3 stars (5.6) 34 2nd All-AAC
Ryan Mack RT 6'5, 319 Jr. 3 stars (5.6) 13
Kamran Joyer RG 11
Chris Acosta RG 6'3, 275 Sr. 2 stars (5.4) 3
Abraham Garcia RG 2
Aaron Epps RT 6'7, 279 Jr. 3 stars (5.5) 0
Mike Romano C 6'4, 293 Jr. 3 stars (5.5) 0
Josh Stearns RG 6'1, 285 Jr. NR 0
Andrew Polston RT 6'6, 275 Jr. NR 0
T.C. Klusman LG 6'3, 272 So. 3 stars (5.6) 0
Joe Manley RG 6'6, 326 So. 3 stars (5.5) 0
Pedro Sibiea RG 6'3, 294 So. 3 stars (5.5) 0
Skylar Lacy LT 6'6, 320 RSFr. 3 stars (5.6)
Kelby Johnson OL 6'7, 299 Jr. 2 stars (5.3)

6. Plug the holes

Hey, we finally joined Facebook!

Note that I said that the offensive line is one of the most experienced in FBS, and not one of the best. Despite three all-conference performers, the Louisville line was only good and not spectacular last fall. It created opportunities for its runners, but there were glitches -- Louisville ranked just 92nd in Stuff Rate (negative run plays).

Still, one has to love the potential of a line that returns all three of those all-conference performers and boasts 115 career starts distributed among five players. Jake Smith, John Miller, and Jamon Brown came up with Bridgewater, basically, and after some growing pains in 2011, this became a steady, reliable unit. And despite Bridgewater's departure, it returns mostly intact.

I don't know for sure about upside, but experience tends to create reliability, and if the Cardinals can minimize the random glitches while starting up to four seniors, there are really no question marks on this offense outside of the quarterback position.

Defense

FIVE FACTORS -- DEFENSE
Raw Category Rk Opp. Adj. Category Rk
EXPLOSIVENESS IsoPPP 1.09 41 IsoPPP+ 108.5 25
EFFICIENCY Succ. Rt. 34.2% 7 Succ. Rt. + 111.6 25
FIELD POSITION Off. Avg. FP 29.9 71 Off. FP+ 99.5 68
FINISHING DRIVES Pts. Per Trip in 40 3.0 2 Redzone S&P+ 116.9 18
TURNOVERS EXPECTED 25.6 ACTUAL 27.0 +1.4
Category Yards/
Game Rk
S&P+ Rk Success
Rt. Rk
PPP+ Rk
OVERALL 1 15 25 12
RUSHING 1 28 44 29
PASSING 5 9 11 10
Standard Downs 22 27 42
Passing Downs 5 23 10
Q1 Rk 1 1st Down Rk 9
Q2 Rk 26 2nd Down Rk 32
Q3 Rk 52 3rd Down Rk 5
Q4 Rk 51

Defensive Line

Category Adj.
Line Yds
Std.
Downs
LY/carry
Pass.
Downs
LY/carry
Opp.
Rate
Power
Success
Rate
Stuff
Rate
Adj.
Sack Rate
Std.
Downs
Sack Rt.
Pass.
Downs
Sack Rt.
Team 111.8 2.38 2.45 32.2% 52.9% 27.5% 155.9 8.0% 11.8%
Rank 26 9 8 8 5 3 8 6 3
Name Pos Ht, Wt 2014
Year
Rivals GP Tackles % of Team TFL Sacks Int PBU FF FR
Marcus Smith DE 13 37.5 5.9% 18.5 14.5 0 3 4 0
Roy Philon DT 13 34.5 5.4% 12.0 4.0 0 0 0 0
Brandon Dunn DT 13 34.0 5.4% 4.5 1.0 0 0 0 0
Sheldon Rankins DE 6'2, 287 Jr. 3 stars (5.7) 10 13.0 2.0% 4.0 3.0 0 2 1 0
B.J. Dubose DE 6'5, 268 Sr. 3 stars (5.7) 11 10.0 1.6% 4.0 1.5 0 0 0 0
Dominique Dishman DT 7 2.0 0.3% 0.0 0.0 0 0 0 0
Pedro Sibiea DT 1 1.5 0.2% 0.0 0.0 0 0 0 0
DeAngelo Brown NT 6'0, 319 Jr. 3 stars (5.5)
Johnny Richardson NT 6'3, 334 RSFr. 3 stars (5.7)
Kyle Shortridge DE 6'2, 293 RSFr. 3 stars (5.6)
Pio Vatuvei DE 6'3, 265 Jr. 3 stars (5.5)
Terry Ramsey DE 6'5, 250 Fr. 3 stars (5.6)

7. Turnover and changeover

Most of my reservations regarding Louisville in 2013 came on the defensive side of the ball. When Charlie Strong came to town, he immediately improved the Cardinals' defense from 89th in Def. F/+ to 45th in 2010. But there was a ceiling in place; they ranked just 46th in 2011 and 48th in 2012. The level of returning experience was high in 2013, but I was curious just how much the defense could improve in just one offseason.

The defense improved quite a bit. Thanks mostly to a line that went from liability to extreme strength, Louisville improved all the way to 10th in Def. F/+. The Cardinals were equally adept at preventing you from moving the ball efficiently and putting the kibosh on big plays, and they got even better when you got closer to their end zone. Only one defense in the country allowed fewer than Louisville's 3.0 points per trip inside the 40.

While the defense was a pleasant surprise in 2013, it has its work cut out for it in 2014. First of all, the line was decimated by attrition. The thing about having top-notch experience in a given season is that it probably means you don't the next. Plus, defensive coordinator Todd Grantham, formerly of Georgia, is installing his version of the 3-4 defense, which means that the front line is undergoing both turnover and change. There is almost no experience at the new nose tackle position, and while players like Sheldon Rankins have shown plenty of potential, they now have to produce at a much higher level.

The news isn't all bad, of course. Former end Lorenzo Mauldin should be absolutely terrifying at the OLB position, and inside linebacker James Burgess has proven to be tough against both run (eight non-sack tackles for loss) and pass (five passes defensed). Throw in some former four-star recruits who have been either limited by injury (Keith Brown) or simply waiting their turn (Nick Dawson, Stacy Thomas), and you've got loads of upside at linebacker.

Still, potential at linebacker only matters if the line can keep blockers off of those linebackers. We'll see.

Linebackers

Name Pos Ht, Wt 2014
Year
Rivals GP Tackles % of Team TFL Sacks Int PBU FF FR
Preston Brown ILB 13 84.5 13.3% 12.5 4.5 0 1 3 1
James Burgess ILB 6'0, 215 Jr. 3 stars (5.6) 13 56.5 8.9% 9.0 1.0 1 4 1 0
Lorenzo Mauldin OLB 6'4, 243 Sr. 3 stars (5.6) 13 34.5 5.4% 12.0 9.5 0 4 3 0
Keith Kelsey ILB 6'1, 225 So. 3 stars (5.6) 12 20.0 3.1% 1.0 0.0 0 2 0 0
Champ Lee OLB 13 13.0 2.0% 2.0 1.0 0 0 0 0
George Durant OLB 12 12.0 1.9% 1.0 0.0 0 2 0 0
Nick Dawson ILB 6'3, 265 So. 4 stars (5.9) 10 10.5 1.7% 3.5 1.0 0 2 0 0
Deon Rogers OLB 12 10.5 1.7% 0.5 0.0 0 0 0 0
Deiontrez Mount OLB 6'5, 246 Sr. 3 stars (5.6) 10 6.5 1.0% 1.5 0.5 0 2 0 0
Lamar Atkins LB 5'11, 216 So. 2 stars (5.2) 11 4.5 0.7% 0.5 0.0 0 0 0 0
Keith Brown LB 6'1, 235 Jr. 4 stars (5.8) 4 3.0 0.5% 1.0 0.0 0 0 0 0
James Hearns OLB 6'3, 272 RSFr. 4 stars (5.8) 2 2.0 0.3% 0.0 0.0 0 0 0 0
Stacy Thomas OLB 6'1, 249 RSFr. 4 stars (5.8)
Finesse Middleton OLB 5'11, 246 RSFr. 3 stars (5.5)
Lyn Clark ILB 6'2, 244 RSFr. 2 stars (5.4)
Trevon Young OLB 6'4, 233 Jr. 3 stars (5.6)
Sharieff Rhaheed-
Muahmmad
LB 6'3, 215 Fr. 3 stars (5.7)
Henry Famurewa OLB 6'2, 232 Fr. 3 stars (5.6)

Secondary

Name Pos Ht, Wt 2014
Year
Rivals GP Tackles % of Team TFL Sacks Int PBU FF FR
Calvin Pryor FS 12 64.5 10.2% 5.5 0 3 4 2 1
Terell Floyd CB 5'10, 201 Sr. 3 stars (5.6) 13 43.5 6.9% 2 0 4 3 1 0
Hakeem Smith SS 13 40.5 6.4% 2 1 3 5 0 0
Charles Gaines CB 5'11, 174 Jr. 3 stars (5.7) 13 19.5 3.1% 0 0 5 7 0 0
Jermaine Reve FS 6'0, 180 Jr. 3 stars (5.5) 13 18.0 2.8% 2.5 0.5 0 0 0 0
Gerod Holliman SS 6'0, 201 Jr. 4 stars (5.8) 11 14.5 2.3% 1 0 0 3 0 0
Andrew Johnson CB 5'9, 186 Sr. 4 stars (5.8) 9 6.5 1.0% 0 0 0 0 0 0
Devontre Parnell CB 5'11, 174 So. 3 stars (5.7)
Kevin Houchins CB 5'11, 194 So. 3 stars (5.5)
Chucky Williams SS 6'2, 207 RSFr. 3 stars (5.7)
Richard Benjamin FS 6'0, 210 RSFr. 3 stars (5.7)
Terrence Ross S 6'1, 186 RSFr. 3 stars (5.6)
James Sample S 6'2, 215 Jr. 3 stars (5.6)
D'Eric Culver CB 6'0, 180 Fr. 3 stars (5.7)
Michael Johnson S 6'3, 200 Fr. 3 stars (5.6)






8. Circumstance vs. the secondary

With Mauldin and Marcus Smith leading a dominant pass rush, the secondary had plenty of help last year. Pass defense was an overall strength of the defense, which was particularly helpful considering Louisville opponents were usually behind and forced to pass.

The pass rush should still be pretty good, but if the line doesn't gel, and offenses are in more favorable down-and-distance situations, that will put a lot of pressure on the secondary to raise its game. And to be sure, the cornerback position is of no concern. Terell Floyd is strong, and Charles Gaines is outstanding.

But the Cards are starting over at safety with the departure of Calvin Pryor and Hakeem Smith. Jermaine Reve and Gerod Holliman saw some action as sophomores last year, and there's plenty of potential in players like Chucky Williams and Richard Benjamin. But it's hard to imagine the defense avoiding at least a little bit of a drop-off when it comes to big-play prevention.

And if the run defense is also regressing a bit ... well, that's not incredibly encouraging. There's enough talent here for Louisville to avoid becoming a bad defense, but this isn't going to be a top-10 defense this time around.

Special Teams

Punter Ht, Wt 2014
Year
Punts Avg TB FC I20 FC/I20
Ratio
Ryan Johnson 5'11, 199 Sr. 39 41.2 5 12 11 59.0%
Kicker Ht, Wt 2014
Year
Kickoffs Avg TB OOB TB%
John Wallace 6'0, 196 Jr. 80 59.6 14 4 17.5%
Joshua Appleby 6'3, 219 Jr. 9 63.3 3 0 33.3%
Place-Kicker Ht, Wt 2014
Year
PAT FG
(0-39)
Pct FG
(40+)
Pct
John Wallace 6'0, 196 Jr. 52-54 18-20 90.0% 2-4 50.0%
Matthew Nakatani 3-3 0-1 0.0% 0-0
Returner Pos. Ht, Wt 2014
Year
Returns Avg. TD
Charles Gaines KR 5'11, 174 Jr. 10 30.1 1
Robert Clark KR 5'9, 173 Sr. 9 15.8 0
Kai De La Cruz PR 6'0, 186 Sr. 10 2.9 0
Eli Rogers PR 5'10, 182 Sr. 10 8.2 0
Category Rk
Special Teams F/+ 28
Field Goal Efficiency 64
Punt Return Efficiency 45
Kick Return Efficiency 40
Punt Efficiency 4
Kickoff Efficiency 104
Opponents' Field Goal Efficiency 83

9. Johnson and Gaines are keepers

As good a cornerback as Charles Gaines is, he's almost as good a kick returner. Gaines and Ryan Johnson gave Louisville a couple of outstanding field position weapons. Granted, a lot of those field position gains were given away by kickoff coverage, and John Wallace was only a good place-kicker, not a great one, but this was a good special teams unit in 2013, and everybody's back. That probably means good things, huh?

2014 Schedule & Projection Factors

2014 Schedule
Date Opponent Proj. Rk
1-Sep Miami 30
6-Sep Murray State NR
13-Sep at Virginia 62
20-Sep at Florida International 122
27-Sep Wake Forest 83
3-Oct at Syracuse 67
11-Oct at Clemson 5
18-Oct N.C. State 66
30-Oct Florida State 1
8-Nov at Boston College 69
22-Nov at Notre Dame 25
29-Nov Kentucky 75
Five-Year F/+ Rk 7.9% (39)
Two-Year Recruiting Rk 51
TO Margin/Adj. TO Margin* 17 / 10.7
TO Luck/Game +2.4
Approx. Ret. Starters (Off. / Def.) 13 (8, 5)

10. Four top-60 opponents

One would think that a move from the AAC to ACC would result in an upgrade in schedule strength for Louisville. And to an extent, that's true. The Cardinals do host Florida State and Miami and visit both Clemson and partial ACC member Notre Dame. That's a pretty impressive ACC welcome.

Those are also the only four projected top-60 opponents Louisville has on the docket. There are plenty of potentially tricky games -- trips to Virginia, Syracuse, and Boston College are in no way slam dunks -- but you play those types of games in the AAC, as well. Louisville's SOS numbers aren't going to improve by an extreme amount, but considering the transition at play here, that might not be a bad thing.

Petrino and his new charges get a schedule custom-made for 8-4 or 9-3, and they should be good enough to reach that. Obviously a lot of the Cardinals' fortunes depend on finding an adept quarterback, but Gardner passed his spring tests, and if he's not up to standard, there are a lot of potential replacements waiting their turns.

And the rest of the offense is going to be good enough to offset a few iffy moments at quarterback. Petrino inherits a lovely stable of receivers, not to mention some big running backs, which he preferred at Arkansas. The offense seems to have the tools he requires, and that should be good enough for Louisville to play at a top-40 level even if the defense regresses as much as it might if the line doesn't take well to transition in the short term.

Louisville brought Bobby Petrino back for one simple reason: wins. The Cardinals weren't worried about scoring PR points, just scoreboard points. And while we don't know if Petrino's going to stay two years or 10 this time, he'll do what he was brought back to town to do. There will be a little bit of transition and defensive struggle in 2014, but this is definitely one of the ACC's better teams, and that will probably be the case for as long as Petrino is in town.