Tonight the University of Louisville Football Program will have it’s 1st Spring Game under the Bobby Petrino era 2.0. Things are going to look very different. A completely different coaching staff, a new quarterback, a new offense, a new defense, new players, new position battles. So there is a lot to take in at Papa John’s Cardinal Stadium and even after the Spring Game ends there will still be plenty of unanswered questions with so many players being out due to injury or held out of Spring Drills as a precaution. Even so, let’s take a look at each aspect of Cardinal Football for the Spring Game:
Right now, Will Gardner has a FIRM grasp on the #1 spot. Garrick McGee (OC) & Bobby Petrino spend a great deal of time with Gardner getting him to understand the scheme. Will has a big arm and throws a nice ball. Accuracy is definitely something people will notice as an area of improvement, but consistent decision-making in the offense is the real area of improvement for Gardner.
Kyle Bolin moved to the #3 spot about mid-way through Fall Camp. Bolin really needs to get bigger and stronger. Kyle throws nicely between the number to about 15 yards but really needs to work on stretching the defense downfield and to the sideline. I never thought I would type this but Brett Nelson is the #2 QB for Spring Practice. Fans should expect to see both Nelson and Bolin tonight.
The biggest change fans should notice is that Jake Smith has moved from Center back to his sophomore spot at Right Guard. Guard is probably Jake’s more natural position, but he could definitely move back to Center for the season if certain personnel expectancies do not occur. In the meantime Tobijah Hughley (former walk-on from Lexington Lafayette) is the man in the middle for the Cards. Louisville is short at the Guard position and moved Pedro Sibiea from Defensive Tackle to RG. Sibiea immediately played a lot of 1st team but had some procedural problems that slowed the offense’s progression as a unit. Bobby Petrino still thinks a great deal of Pedro’s potential at Right Guard and fans will see him in action.
Opposite of the Right Guard will be John Miller who is embarking on his senior season and potentially his 4th consecutive season as a starter at that position. Miller is extremely experienced and could play his way into the NFL if he can continue to be a rock at RG. Miller (and Jake Smith too) are very good in space, and will certainly gain from the fresh eyes of Chris Klenakis.
The tackle position is deep, but there have been some bodies missing during the Spring. Jamon Brown is not missing. The 6-6, 350 lbs. Senior has been working on trimming down for some added mobility, but Jamon provides an anchor at the Left Tackle position. The Right Tackle spot is up for grabs with Nacho Garcia out for Spring, Ryan Mack with lots of experience as a starter, and an Aaron Epps who is finally emerging after a long investment.
There are several underclassmen to have had the opportunity to get a lot of work and they will still have chances in Fall Camp to shine. The thing to watch is the running game with this group. Louisville under Charlie Strong really did not do a great job running the football except for 2010 with Bilal Powell and a veteran offensive line. Now Louisville has another veteran group and a head coach that insists on dominating the line of scrimmage. The last 3 season the Cards really relied too heavily on converting with the pass on 3rd down. That needs to change and Bobby Petrino won’t allow the 1st and 2nd down rushing production that fans have seen over the course of the last 3 seasons. We know that this group made huge strides in pass protection in 2013, so driving the Defense off the ball is the next step.
Dominique Brown, Michael Dyer, and LJ Scott are the 3 names people will leave Papa John’s talking about. Unfortunately Brandon Radcliff won’t play tonight after being the main backfield threat at the last Spring Game. Dominique Brown is in full stride currently and is running better than he ever has as a Cardinal, and Michael Dyer is starting to make the cuts and runs that Louisville fans expected when he arrived late last Fall Camp. Dyer is coming off of sports hernia surgery.
The new name in the backfield is early enrollee LJ Scott. As we’ve seen throughout college football, the running back position is the most likely to make an immediate impact for a football team. Scott comes in at 6-0, 215 lbs READY. L.J. has been ‘wowing’ at scrimmages and practices. Fans remember the lethal backfields that Bobby Petrino put on display from 2003-2006 and this group has the potential to be on par with the same group that had 4 Running Backs in the same backfield play in the NFL (current UofL RB Coach Kolby Smith among that group). Throw in a rehabbing Corvin Lamb, a hopefully healthy Brandon Radcliff this fall, a utility player like Jarel McGriff-Culver, and a head-buster like Griffin Uhl and this backfield has every tool that Bobby Petrino could need.
DeVante Parker is good. I mean really good. Unfair. I believe if Parker gets enough balls thrown his way he could win the Biletnikoff Award. With DeVante Louisville has a big play threat at all times. Michaelee Harris will be on the sideline tomorrow as a precaution. But the cupboard is not empty. Louisville is SENIOR HEAVY at the wide receiver position (Robert Clark, Eli Rogers, Kai De La Cruz, and Matt Milton in addition to DeVante & Michaelee).
Fans shouldn’t be concerned with the ability of the Wide Receivers in 2014, but they may want to look to the future. James Quick looks GOOD, really good. Quick is starting to look like the player that fans expected to see in 2013 as a freshman despite a very veteran unit. Lightning fast George Clements and early enrollee freshman Cameron Polk are new faces to keep an eye on. Wide Receivers Coach Lamar Thomas was just announced that he will be joining the Miami Hurricanes Hall of Fame.
Louisville is LIGHT on Tight Ends and will definitely need to play the newcomers that arrive this summer. Gerald Christian might have been the happiest person in the city (or at least he should have been) when it was announced the Bobby Petrino would be the new (old) Head Coach at the University of Louisville. Gerald Christian is a BEAST at tight end, and Petrino LOVES exploiting the tight end position. Luke Brohm moved over from Fullback to Tight End to help provide depth, but the player that is REALLY standing out is true sophomore Keith Towbridge. Towbridge is HUGE, runs well and can catch. Keith will be a big help in the run game as well but he has a tool set that Bobby Petrino, and Tight End Coach (& former UofL Tight End) Pete Nochta can really use.
Still 3 tight ends……isn’t enough. Louisville is going to find at least one additional tight end this summer.
Before I go into position by position. Todd Grantham’s Defense is going to take an adjustment to understand. We’ll take a hard look at Grantham’s style this summer contextually and in video format on TheCrunchZone.com but for now, just understanding the complexity and versatility of players is a key.
We won’t be able to categorize very many players into categories. Defensive Tackles can sometimes play end. Ends can sometimes play Defensive Tackle. Ends can also play Outstide Linebacker, Outside Linebackers can also play safety (or nickel). So before we go into the position breakdown understand that many of these players will be asked to play differently depending on situation.
Also it is important to note that Louisville played a 3-4 defense throughout the 2013 season and in about 4 games almost exclusively. A lot of people will make a big deal about Grantham’s defense being based on the 3-4 rather than Charlie Strong’s favored Nickel base, but Louisville played a lot of different sets in 2013 so these concepts aren’t entirely new to the Cards.
At Nose Guard DeAngelo Brown is back after sitting out the 2013 season with an injury. Brown is a true Nose and has superior strength to demand multiple blockers and will push the pocket anyway. Jamaine Brooks is out this Spring and may or may not return this fall as he is set to graduate in May coming off of a knee injury that caused Louie Maine to miss the 2013 season. Johnny Richardson (De’Asian) and Kyle Shortridge both red-shirted as freshman last year and will push for significant time in the middle but both could also step outside at times.
In the 3-4 defense it is important to have one DE to have significant size. Players like Sheldon Rankins and BJ Dubose are PERFECT for that role. After that the situation gets murky. There is a huge list of players that we could classify as a Defensive End but also see lined up as a linebacker in the same series. It’s important to not to try and pigeon hole these players, but but Stacy Thomas, Nick Dawson, Trevon Young, Lorenzo Mauldin, Finesse Middleton, and Deiontrez Mount all sort of fit that role. Mauldin readily classifies now as a linebacker, but will sit out this Spring. I will be keeping a close watch on the Defensive Line rotation and alignments throughout the Spring Game (and the future).
Keith Kelsey has really elevated his game. Kelsey played a lot as a true freshman, but really has emerged as sure fire interior linebacker for Louisville in 2014. Keith Brown is sitting out the Spring, but guys like James Burgess continue to impress. Newcomers Lyn Clark and James Hearns look ready to contribute right away. This is a solid group that will be augmented by several players in the defensive line group.
The Linebackers will be in constant motion showing blitz, dropping into coverage and vice versa. Playing linebacker in this defense will be a lot of fun. But the Cards do need numbers. We’ll keep a close eye on the developments and how the rotation of defensive lineman will affect the formations.
Louisville has one of the best Cornerback duos in the country in my opinion in Charles Gaines and Terrell Floyd. Both are outstanding in coverage and Floyd has plenty of physicality. Gaines certainly could work on being a more reliable tackler.
Andrew Johnson enters his senior season with a lot of experience and hopefully is healthy after struggling with injuries in 2013. But Louisville needs bodies here. The 3 already mentioned have great experience, but beyond that there are a lot of unproven guys. I’ve thought a lot of Devontre Parnell’s ability for a long time, we haven’t seen that on the field yet, and Richard Benjamin red-shirted last season and has been getting a lot of meaningful reps.
Safety is another spot of concern, Louisville’s secondary all the way around needs depth. But Safety needs starters and right now no one in this group has set themselves a part from the competition. Jermaine Reve has the most experience and went down with a leg injury that has been surgically repaired about a week and a half ago. Bobby Petrino said that Reve would be out for some time. Reve likely would have started at Free Safety, and Cardinal fans will have to wait until the start of Fall Camp to see if Reve will be available for the 2014 season. Louisville fans will also need to wait to see Terrence Ross a redshirt Freshman that figures to factor at Strong Safety.
In the meantime it is time for Gerod Holliman to take charge and establish himself as an elite safety. Holliman came to Louisville as a big-time signee and has been getting a lot of great work this Spring. I expect for Holliman to turn the corner and to become a play-maker in the Louisville secondary. Chucky Williams has also had a lot of work at Safety and will likely play a lot of 1st team tonight. Jarrod Barnes (walk-on) has been forced into the mix and Kevin Houchins and Kamal Hogan both are providing depth and it remains to be seen how much these guys will factor. Clearly, Louisville needs bodies in the secondary and it is an area of opportunity for young players to come in and make an impact.
Typically in Spring Games Specialists get to kick without a lot of pressure and there is likely no returns that will happen. So this will be something that fans won’t be able to get an honest feel for until this Fall. But John Wallace is your starting kicker and Ryan Johnson is likely your punter. Josh Appleby continues to be solid competition for both with his Big (yet inconsistent) leg. Grant Donovan returns for his final season to snap to these guys, and the Cards have A LOT of options in the return game, and I doubt we see that cleared up today.
The 2014 University of Louisville Wendy’s Wonderful Kids Spring Game is scheduled for Friday, April 11 at 7:30 p.m. at Papa John’s Cardinal Stadium.
The game is free, and fans are encouraged to take come early and take part in the special pre-game festivities. Stadium gates will open at 6 p.m.
There are lots of activities surrounding the spring game, starting at 4 p.m. There will be live music in the Street Fest area with food, $2 beers and carnival rides for both children and adults. Tickets for rides will be sold per ride or an all-day pass can also be purchased. Beer will also be available during the game on the Norton Party Deck for $2. The concourse concession areas will have other food and drink specials.
The Cardinal Authentic Store will host their annual tent sale in Street Fest where fans can purchase merchandise for up to 70% off.
Following the game, UofL players will be available for a 45-minute autograph session, and there will also be a station where fans can take pictures with certain Cardinal players.