Where are 2010 Louisville Cardinals?
At 2-2, I think it is safe to say: Louisville is right where everyone thought they would be after 4 games in the Coach Strong era. But the record doesn't tell the whole story……
UofL lost both of its contests by 7 points a piece and had a chance to tie late in both games. In the case of UK, early alignment mistakes on defense proved costly and the hole was too big to overcome with a UofL offense that was still trying to find its legs. As for the Oregon State game, UofL left points on the board twice and could not find a way to stop James Rodgers returning kicks.
The Cardinals have played solid football. And yes mistakes were made and games were lost. UofL could have played worse in these games given the injury situation, but players stepped in filled roles and UofL hasn't made any excuses regarding personnel. I would have to think that UofL football is much further along than most expected headed into the last game before conference play. Big Kudos to the players and coaches thus far for putting their heads down, doing the work, and not listening to the negativity. These guys want to win today. The players we have on the roster have shown that they don't want to hear about a rebuilding year.
Leading up to the 2010 season there were a lot of opinions on what the Cardinals would look like under new head coach Charlie Strong. For all the speculation, one thing is for sure: Coach Strong is intense. Coach Strong has shown himself to be situationally aggressive and so far the risks have paid off. Also, from Game One to Game Four the progression is obvious. I think what I like the most is the accountability he has for his players, his assistants, and himself. Coaching is constant in the UofL program from top to bottom.
Charlie Strong does seem to take a page out of the Bill Belichick handbook of not giving a whole lot of information to the media. This staff is so tight knit and the information just does not leak. As a huge fan I would love info, info, info. But as a fan I love even more WINS, WINS, WINS. As long as those come I'll be happy, and gameday is more like Christmas as the fans get to finally see what their team looks like. Still, I like the good ole days of John L. with his open practices and Petrino just simply telling you exactly what he was going to do, and going out there and doing it. Coach Strong is not alone in his approach as most programs are releasing less and less information these days. What's more he seems like he is able to squeeze an inordinate amount of talent out of each player.
General Areas to Improve
I am an eyelash away from saying that the Cardinals are playing fundamentally sound football, but the penalties are preventing me from doing so. Right now the Cardinals are averaging 9 flags and 71.3 ypg, 104th in the country.
Other than the penalties turnover margin has to be the main concern. In each game UofL has turned the ball over at least twice and lost the turnover battle in 3 out of 4 games. The Arkansas St. contest helped alleviate the bleeding as the Cards forced a season high 4 turnovers while again coughing up the ball twice. Turnovers happen in college football, but the Cardinals need to do a better job of hanging onto the football.
Lining up properly. Coach Strong has said himself that this team plays pretty good football when they get lined up. It sounds simple and basic, and it is. But lining up isn't the only thing going through the players' minds when they are on the field. There are substitution packages, different formations, calls, etc. and in the matter of 40 seconds from whistle dead to snap a lot can happen. Consider the fact that UofL has had 4 defensive coordinators in 4 seasons, and 4 offensive coordinators in 4 seasons. Not to mention the youth they are playing. Getting the play in, getting in and out of the huddle, getting lined up is very simple and basic, BUT it does take work and as long as the Cardinals have continuity in the staff UofL will see improvement here.
After the first two seasons, I thought UofL was going to have to play excellent defense and special teams to win football games in 2010. After the last 2 games, I have more confidence. It's been very encouraging to watch the offense grow in terms of execution and complexity the last two games. Mike Sanford has implemented new themes and wrinkles each week and as the offense grows so does the potential of Louisville football.
If you haven't noticed, the Cardinals are going to run the football. Opponents can stack the box and key on the run, and UofL is going to establish a ground game and wear on the defense. Bilal Powell is different in 2010. He has been outstanding thus far and is the #13 leading rusher in the country (121.25 ypg/18.25 carries). Perhaps the most telling stat for Powell is that for all of the rushers in the Top 20 only 3 players have fewer rushes than Powell. Powell is running "MAD" and is inflicting punishment, showing nice burst, and has found success with the cutback. Powell is going to keep defenses honest, and if they cheat they get burnt. Right now he is running like an NFL prospect.
Victor Anderson returned to form and earned his first 100-yard rushing performance since the 2009 UK game vs. Arkansas St. Victor has been instrumental on kickoffs and fans have been waiting for Anderson to break out in the offense. Perhaps the biggest reason for this success is the rotation in the WildCard of Powell, Anderson, and now Dominique Brown. As far as establishing the run, these are 3 supremely talented individuals to be able to turn to. I would expect to see that rotation throughout the season and with Brown now in the fold another body to run, but now the ability to throw out of the WildCard will eventually come.
Adam Froman really is starting to settle in. He throws a nice ball and is starting to see the open receiver with regularity. Having a healthy Adam Froman is going to be key for the rest of the season. Froman's ability to drop down and use his legs is another component the defense must account for. I would like to see more play-action (we saw some of it vs. Ark St) due to our strong desire to run the ball. Froman is very effective when he has time, but when the line breaks down he still seems to panic. I would like to see Froman maintain composure and make the right choice quickly while keeping his eyes downfield. I've been more impressed with him each week.
Another reason to be impressed with Froman is the fact that he has had a different receiving corps for each game. Injuries to Bellamy, Pascley, Beaumont, and now Andrell Smith don't make Froman's job easy. Catching balls seemed like it might be an issue the first two games, but since the receiving corps has proved reliable. Josh Bellamy has shown the past two games why coaches and players were so excited about him. He is a major football player and makes Froman comfortable. It's early, but I would go as far as to say that he is the best JUCO receiver UofL has had since Deion Branch.
Beaumont is a reliable possession receiver and hopefully we can get him back healthy soon. Beaumont doesn't do anything flashy, but he is a tough hard-nosed receiver. Cameron Graham is very good. I do wish UofL would target him more often, he seems to be Froman's guy on 3rd down. Chichester has been used a lot at WR out of necessity and has played well, UofL needs bodies at the WR position.
If the passing game is working and the running a game is successful then it means one thing: the Offensive Line is doing its job. At times they have had some breakdowns, but overall they have given Froman a lot of time to operate and the backs room to run. The Cards really need to get Mario Benavides healthy. Alex Kupper played adequately vs. Arkansas St., but there were several instances were Kupper seemed uncomfortable and confused on Saturday. Snap infractions and a couple of false starts due to Alex being unsure of the snap count and whiffing on a couple of blocks downfield. Still, Kupper stepped in and played well, but there is a reason Benavides is the starter. The RG position is the only position that has seen a great deal of rotation with Josh Byrom and Conrad Thomas splitting time.
When Charlie Strong arrived he did so with an impressive reputation on defense. Still, he had doubters due to the personnel he inherited. Thus far, the Cardinal defense has played beyond expectations save a few growing pains and confusion in assignments. For the most part UofL has employed an aggressive style and has allowed few big plays. Vance Bedford's side of the football is playing a host of newcomers and young talent. They aren't the "Steel Curtain", but the defense has still played well enough to win the ball games they have been in thus far.
Bedford/Strong's defense is a mix of formations going from the traditional 4-3, to the 3-3-5, to the 3-4 at times. Even more interesting is the different situational usage of personnel like BJ Butler who plays both DE and OLB depending on situation and Malcolm Tatum who primarily plays DE, also drops inside on passing rushing situations as well. But for all the changes in formations and packages one thing remains the same: PRESSURE. The biggest difference from 2009 to 2010 thus far is getting off the field on 3rd down, in 2009 the Cardinals allowed 3rd down 40.27% of the time and thus far in 2010 that percentage is down to 28.57%.
The defensive line is a lot like an NFL style line. Control the middle with your tackles, contain the edges with your ends and let your linebackers make plays. I actually thought Greg Scruggs would have been more disruptive to this point, but the rotation of DTs has been steady and it hasn't really seemed to matter who is on the inside thus far between Scruggs, High, and Salmon. As for the ends, Malcolm Tatum seems to be the most trusted of the coaches. I like Tatum's play thus far, and it's hard to imagine that Will Savoy was ever a walk-on. Neither guy is dominant, but both have really nice motors and are smart football players. UofL's most productive ends have been two non-starters in Rodney Gnat and BJ Butler. Gnat is 6th in the nation in sacks and leads the Big East. BJ Butler is called upon in pass rushing situations and always seems to find a way to the QB.
The linebacker corps has been all over the place in terms of the players involved, but it seems that the coaches have finally settled on Daniel Brown, Dexter Heyman, and Brandon Heath. Daniel Brown is playing outstanding football. He pursues and covers extremely well and I've been extremely impressed with his play. Dexter Heyman is just bursting out of his shell. After bouncing from position to position and never actually finding a groove, Heyman is starting to dominate from the MLB position and had his best game as a Cardinal on Saturday vs. Arkansas St while he racked up 10 tackles on the day. Brandon Heath is really playing fast football and starting to make a difference. It looked like he finally has the use of his hands, and vs. Arkansas St he started to play more confidently.
Preston Brown, Marcus Smith, Antwone Canady, and Eugene Sowell have all seen extensive time at linebacker this season, but I think it is clear moving forward that Heyman, D. Brown, and Heath will be the main guys for the rest of the season.
In the secondary, cornerbacks Johnny Patrick and Bobby Burns have been solid. Against UK and Arkansas St. their size was exploited and they gave up some plays. Opposing QB tend to shade more towards Burns' side of the field, but Burns is solid in coverage and rarely breaks down and gives up big yardage. Patrick has made some gambles and some have paid off, and some haven't. I really like both of our corners helping against the run. They are both really solid open field tacklers and that's an underrated ability at cornerback. Darius Ashley is the only other corner the coaches seem comfortable using at this point and has played well in his spots.
At safety, UofL looks nothing like what was expected. To start vs. UK Terrence Simien and Mike Evans were pegged as starters. Since the 2nd half of that game, it has been all Shenard Holton and Hakeem Smith with Evans playing a lot of nickel. Holton and Smith have proven to be a good duo, and I really like both of these young guys to be cornerstones of the defense this year. They are reliable and can lay the wood. I would like to see more solid play from Mike Evans. He did play well at Oregon State, but I still feel like he is the most shaky element in the Cardinal secondary.
One thing about special teams that UofL has in 2010 that it hasn't had in two seasons: Field goal kicking. Perhaps it was a lot of poor coaching decisions not kicking field goals, or maybe it's just that the coaches trust Chris Philpott's leg. Whatever the difference, I am very happy to see that the Cardinals have the ability to score points when a drive stalls.
Defending kickoffs and punts has been an issue, and virtually cost Louisville a chance to win vs. Oregon St. in Corvallis. Arkansas St had some nice runbacks as well, but I would think continuing to improve in this area will be a major point of emphasis for the coaching staff. Nothing takes the air out of a team more than special teams touchdowns.
Conversely, Victor Anderson has had some nice runbacks on kickoff returns. Doug Beaumont has been replaced with Josh Bellamy to return punts. I think it is UofL's turn to take a kick to paydirt.
The last time the Cardinals blocked a punt was 2005. I'd like to see that change in 2010.