Charlie Strong's Cardinals return 18 starters - 10 on offense, 8 on defense - from a team that won a share of the 2011 Big East championship and played in the Belk Bowl, the programs second straight bowl game.
One of the youngest teams, if not the youngest team, in college football last season, Charlie Strong's inexperienced troops are growing up. They'll take the next steps in their development during 15 spring practices leading up to the Red-White spring game April 14. Louisville's first three practices - today and Friday at 4:00; Saturday at 10:00 - will be open to the public before Strong's shuts out fans and media.
InsideTheVille.com examines several of the top storylines heading into spring practice:
Last spring, Teddy Bridgewater and Will Stein split reps during practice while jockeying for the starting position. There is no uncertainty under center heading into spring drills this week - Teddy Bridgewater, the Big East Freshman of the Year, is the MAN for the Cardinals.
After leading Louisville to a co-Big East title and the Belk Bowl in his first season as a starter, one of the major storylines of spring practice is how much progress the talented sophomore has made since the end of last season, when he threw three interceptions in a loss to NC State in Charlotte?
If Louisville plans to win the Big East title outright and reach a BCS bowl game next season, Bridgewater will have to take his performance up another level. He'll operate in Shawn Watson's west coast offense, which is designed to take advantage of Bridgewater's enormous talents. Bridgewater already possesses the confidence and leadership necessary to lead the Cardinals to the top. Now, the 6'3, 208 pound sophomore has to sharpen his grasp of Louisville's offense and make better decisions with the football.
Offensive line development
Louisville's young offensive line struggled at times last year opening holes for the running game and giving Teddy Bridgewater time in the pocket to find his receivers. With two freshmen starters at guard, the Cardinals made progress throughout the season as the young guys up front gained valuable experience. They'll need to continue their growth this spring if the Cardinals hope to achieve their championship goals next season.
Will the absence of senior starting center Mario Benavides negatively effect the groups progress this spring? Will monster sophomore Jamon Brown stake claim to a starting job at tackle? Is redshirt Ryan Mack ready to challenge for the job at left tackle? Will offensive line coach Dave Borbely be able to develop the unit's depth during spring practice? The offensive line's development this spring is crucial for Louisville's on-field success next season.
Louisville entered spring drills razor thin at defensive tackle. Now, with the absence of Roy Philon, who is out due to a back injury, junior Brandon Dunn and sophomore Jamaine Brooks are the only two scholarship tackles available for spring practice. Clint Hurtt will have plenty of options at defensive end with the return of B.J. Butler, B.J. Dubose, Marcus Smith and Lorenzo Mauldin, but he'll be challenged by the lack of depth available inside this spring. The good news is that Dunn and Brooks will get a heavy workload this spring and should make significant progress heading into next season.
With the loss of Dexter Heyman, Charlie Strong will be seeking answers at linebacker this spring, especially at the middle linebacker position. 6'1 junior Preston Brown bulked up to 258 pounds during the off-season and could fill Heyman's shoes in the middle. 6'5, 240 pound sophomore Deiontrez Mount had a promising freshman season and seems poised for a big spring at outside linebacker. Senior outside linebacker Daniel Brown also returns, but he could be pushed by freshmen All-Americans Keith Brown and James Burgess.
Is Mount ready for a starring role? Can Daniel Brown hold off the talented rookies? Will junior Deon Rogers finally transition from special teams and make an impact at linebacker? Is redshirt Jalen Harrington ready to assume a supporting role? There are more questions than answers for Charlie Strong's team at linebacker at the start of spring practice.
Searching for reliable tight ends
Tight end is an important position in new offensive coordinator Shawn Watson's west coast system. The Cardinals struggled at the position last season, especially in the blocking department in short yardage situations. Josh Chichester is gone and questions abound heading into spring practice, namely who will emerge as the starter?
Nate Nord has the most experience and caught a touchdown in the bowl game. He's the presumed frontrunner to replace Chichester. Chris White, a former walk-on, also returns after playing last season in spot duty. The key newcomer to watch, though, is Ryan Hubbell, a 6'5, 225 pound transfer from junior college. Hubbell has been on campus since January and is expected to challenge for a starting job this spring after totaling 16 receptions for 250 yards and a trio of scores last season at Iowa Western. Another intriguing newcomer to watch is Gerald Christian. Though the Florida transfer can't play next season, he was one of the nation's best tight end prospects coming out of high school and is one of the most impressive athletes on the Cardinals roster.
Veteran kicker/punter Chris Philpott and punter Josh Bleser are gone. That means Charlie Strong will be breaking in new kickers this spring. John Wallace and Andrew Fletcher likely will compete for placekicking duties. Wallace, considered one of the top high school kickers in the nation, redshirted last season behind Philpott. He made 11 of 14 field goals as a senior at Central Hardin with a long of 50 yards. Wallace has the strongest leg on Louisville's roster. It will be interesting to see if Wallace, who made 32 of 40 career field goals in high school, can carry that level of accuracy over to the college level? An accurate kicker from Nashville power Bell Academy, Fletcher probably doesn't possess as a strong a leg as Wallace, but made 24-28 field goals his final two years at Bell. Fletcher has been in the program for two years and should be ready to challenge for the placekicking job.
The punting picture isn't as clear. Louisville signed one of the top punters in the nation in Alabama star Josh Appleby, but he won't arrive on campus until this summer. He'll probably be the favorite to win the job in the fall, though Philpott averaged more than 42 yards per punt during his final high school season.
Wallace also is probably the man to beat for kickoff duties. He booted 90 percent of his kickoffs for touchbacks in high school.