Photo courtesy of Louisville Athletics
By Phil Neuffer, Associate College Football Editor
PHILADELPHIA, Pa. (Sports Network) - 2011 SEASON IN REVIEW: Going into the 2011 season the Louisville Cardinals were largely considered to be a team that would struggle all season in yet another year of transition. Charlie Strong's squad didn't seem to notice though, as the Cardinals surprised many by being one of three teams to tie for the Big East title at the end of the season at 5-2 in conference play.
The Cardinals got off to a slow start in 2011 that met the early speculation with a 2-5 record through the first seven games, with one of those wins coming against FCS foe Murray State. The last game of that seven-game stretch included a 25-16 loss on the road to Cincinnati. After that defeat, the Cardinals turned things around with wins in five of their next six games, including surprising upsets on the road against West Virginia and Connecticut.
Even with the tie for the Big East title, the Cardinals were just 7-6 overall after a 31-24 loss to NC State in the Belk Bowl, but it was still a much better season than was expected. With the success of 2011, the expectations for this season will be much higher, something the Cardinals are not taking for granted.
"A lot of people are going to pick us to do well. We have talent, but we have to develop that talent. It's on players and coaches alike. We have to go to work. Just because of how we finished the season, what we did last year doesn't mean anything this year," offensive coordinator Shawn Watson said.
OFFENSE: After a freshman season in which he was immediately challenged, quarterback Teddy Bridgewater will return battle-tested for his sophomore campaign. His performance will be vital to a Louisville offense that will be breaking in players at all the skill positions.
Bridgewater excelled despite his lack of experience, completing 64.5 percent of his passes while throwing for 2,129 yards and 14 touchdowns. He did throw 12 interceptions, but that turnover rate should come down with a year under his belt.
The skill spots will have to mature with Bridgewater as most of last season's major contributors in the receiving core will be returning as sophomores. Eli Rogers (41 receptions, 454 yards) was the team's leading receiver in terms of receptions, while Michaelee Harris (455 yards) and DeVante Parker (6 TDs) led in yards and touchdowns, respectively. Andrell Smith, who caught just 11 passes last year, will be in his senior season and might have an increased workload while Nate Nord, also a senior, will be the starting tight end. Nord had only four receptions in 2012.
Junior Dominique Brown will be the starter at running back after being converted from quarterback three games into last season. While splitting carries with Vic Anderson, Brown rushed for 533 yards and 4 touchdowns. Anderson is now gone which will shift the bulk of the work to Brown who has the ability to break out this season.
"He has a different dynamic because of the weight. He is learning to play behind his pads, which he didn't do at times last year so he should be able to take his game to a different level, " running backs coach Kenny Carter said of Brown.
Four returning starters on the offensive line, anchored by center Mario Benavides, should alleviate the pressure placed on some of the developing players on the edge and in the backfield.
DEFENSE: While the offense will try to take another step forward, the defense might just need to keep pace with last season. The Cardinals ranked 23rd in total defense nationally last season. Six starters return from that unit including the entire secondary.
Hakeem Smith will be the lead man in the secondary after the safety had a strong 2011 season and is now on the national radar. Smith recorded 84 total tackles and an interception last season and will be joined by cornerbacks Andrew Johnson, Adrian Bushell and safety Calvin Pryor, all of whom have starting experience.
The front seven has less experience returning with only a pair of starters from last season back. Preston Brown, a junior, will be in the middle of defensive coordinator Vance Bedford's 4-3 scheme. Brown replaces Dexter Heyman who led the team in tackles last season, but with 84 total tackles himself, the transition should be seamless. Deontrez Mount and Daniel Brown will be the other starters in the unit.
The defensive line will also have one returning starter in tackle Brandon Dunn. A pair of sophomores in B.J. Duobse and Jamaine Brooks along with junior Marcus Smith will fill out the rotation.
SPECIAL TEAMS: The turn-over on special teams will be felt as both the Cardinals' starting place-kicker and punter from a year ago are gone. Freshman John Wallace is the early favorite to take over place-kicking duties from Chris Philpott, while Ryan Johnson is expected to be in control of punts. Still there could be some shifts to the initial plan with Josh Appleby and Matt Nakatani still in the mix for either spot.
Adrian Bushell had a strong season in the return game last year but will be in open competition with Scott Radcliff and Charles Gaines as the primary returner in 2012.
OUTLOOK: The Cardinals have seen first-hand the difference a year makes, as the expectations for this season could not be any more different than a season ago. Although a young team in terms of age, the Cardinals aren't short on experience. Add in the high hopes that the coaching staff has for emerging stars Smith and Bridgewater, and the feeling around campus is that the Big East is Louisville's to win.
Louisville opens up with three straight home games, with two of those coming against opponents in other BCS conferences in Kentucky (SEC) and North Carolina (ACC). After the homestand, it's three straight games on the road, including the Big East opener against Pittsburgh. The Cardinals then play 5 of their last 7 games at home but will have a big test in the regular-season finale on the road against Rutgers.
With only three games against Big East opponents away from home, the Cardinals have a favorable schedule to improve on last year's 5-2 conference mark. The Mountaineers are gone to the Big 12 and Cincinnati is retooling, pushing Louisville into the role of favorites this season.