A year ago, the Cardinals ranked 23rd nationally in total defense, No. 10 against the run, No. 14 in scoring defense and tied for 17th in the country in sacks.
But Charlie Strong's defense isn't the main reason why the Cardinals will be favored to win the Big East after earning a share of the league crown last year.
The reason? A dramatically improved offense led by sophomore quarterback Teddy Bridgewater.
Bridgewater started 10 games as a true freshman, earning Big East Freshman of the Year honors. Now, after a great spring, Bridgewater appears poised to lead Louisville back to a BCS bowl game for the first time since 2006.
After throwing for 2,129 yards and 14 touchdowns as a freshman, Bridgewater elevated his game this spring under the continued guidance of offensive coordinator Shawn Watson. Watson said Bridgewater has a better understanding of his multiple offense and is more decisive with the football. It showed in the spring game when the 6'3, 215 pound sophomore completed 19 of 21 passes for 257 yards and three touchdowns.
"He's had a very good spring," Watson said. "He's been accurate all spring. It's pretty typical for him to [complete] 70 percent [of his passes]. He's been lights out."
Watson challenged Bridgewater, who threw 12 interceptions last season, including three in the Belk Bowl loss to NC State, to improve his decision making this spring.
"Now he's getting it and you see a lot more completions," said Watson. "He's worked hard and doing a lot of good things with his eyes. He's playing very well."
Bridgewater gave Watson much of the credit for his progress this spring.
"If you trust coaching and the system everything comes easily," Bridgewater said.
Bridgewater was sacked 33 times as a freshman. Clearly, that's a number Louisville is determined to decrease in 2012. An improved offensive line that returns four starters should help matters. So should Bridgewater's escapability and a strong running game.
Bridgewater and a strong cast of receivers, led by 6'3 sophomore DeVante Parker, will give the Cardinals their most dangerous passing attack since Bobby Petrino called plays for Brian Brohm. But if Louisville expects to meet lofty preseason expectations the running game has to consistently produce results. That wasn't the case last year as the Cards averaged a meager 85 yards rushing in five regular season setbacks.
"It's a balanced attack, it's all about running the football," Strong said. "That's what I like to see, us run the ball. And Teddy has developed so much under him [Watson]. We'll be able to move the football."
If Dave Borbely's offensive line can open holes, Louisville has four strong candidates to tote the football. Jeremy Wright and Dominique Brown, the team's leading rusher last year, have the most experience. Senorise Perry made a major move for the starting job this spring, and freshman Corvin Lamb is talented enough to be in the discussion.
"I'd like to see one guy emerge," said Strong. "Senorise Perry probably had the best spring. He runs so hard and he runs behind his pads. It's a good group of running backs but you'd like one guy to [emerge] there because it's all about them being consistent where they get enough carries maybe they'll break one or two. Bilal started slowly but got strong as the game went on. That's what you like to see."
Under Watson's guidance, the Cardinals appeared more physical with their running game this spring. Watson employs a fullback, something former OC Mike Sanford didn't do, to provide an extra run blocker and frequently uses two tight end sets to assist the running game.
"We're really pleased with our running game," said Watson. "We have a fullback in our offense now that we didn't have a year ago. We're a lot more multiple than we've ever been. We've got so many good things that we're doing in the run game. Dave [Borbely] and [tight end coach] Sherrone [Moore] have done a good job getting our run game up to speed."
Strong views a strong rushing attack as one of the keys to Louisville's season.
"In order for us to be an outstanding team we have to be able to run the football," Strong said. "We have the backs that are physical enough to run behind their pads and get positive yardage."
Bridgewater also has several capable targets to throw to on the outside. Parker had a big spring and appears poised for a breakout season after leading the Cardinals in TD catches as a freshman. Veterans Scott Radcliff and Damian Copeland also made an impression this spring.
"There are eight kids who are competing for time on the field," Watson said of his receivers. "That's a good thing because if you're a receiver you can take no days off. You have to compete. They are driving each other and it's been a very good spring for that group."
Who's made the most progress this spring? Watson pointed to Parker, one of the Cardinals top recruits two years ago.
"Devante Parker is playing great football," Watson said. "He has exceptional talent. He was in China last year as a freshman. Now he feels comfortable in the offense and is executing the details of the position. DeVante is text book in his route running. He's grown so much and there are no errors in his game. The fundamentals and technique he plays with are outstanding."
Bridgewater often looks in Parker's direction in the red zone, including for his first touchdown pass in Saturday's sping game.
"I call him one-ball because every game at least one catch will be for a touchdown," Bridgewater said. "He's just one of those guys that can change the game and he has a lot of big play potential."
Radcliff caught a team-high nine passes for 119 yards in the spring game and could emerge as a reliable possession receiver for the Cardinals, while Copeland appears healthy after battling injuries early in his career at Louisville.
"Damian Copeland has had a big spring for us. He's really taken his stand in that depth chart," Watson said. "Scotty does everything right. Every football team needs a guy like Scott because he does things exactly the way a coach wants it done and then he delivers when the ball is in his area and make a play."
"Rad makes the tough catches and moves the chains," Strong said.
Bridgewater completed passes to nine different receivers in the spring game.
"With a guy like Teddy they know anybody can get the ball," Watson said. "So you've got to be heads up and run your route."
Louisville even appears improved at tight end, one of the question marks heading into spring practice. Senior Nate Nord is poised for a big season after struggling with injuries last season, while junior college transfer Ryan Hubbell adds depth. Nord made two catches for 25 yards Saturday.
"Our tight ends have developed and Nate Nord has had a big spring," Watson said. "He's done a tremendous job and with Ryan Hubble joining [the team] now we have two tight ends playing really good football. And Chris White has a role and delivers."
Though Strong wasn't pleased with seven spring game penalties, he likes the progress the offense made during their first spring with Watson.
"We're finally beginning to look like a football," Strong said. "At some positions we still have to get better but we're finally beginning to look like something [good]."
Watson admits there is plenty of room for improvement, but was pleased with how 'clean' the offense performed this spring.
"We're still developing our personality but I'm really pleased with our progress," Watson said. "We still have a lot of work to do. We're not a [finished] product. But here's what it is…it's assigned and it's clean. When you look at it on film it looks like the diagrams in the book. That's gaining experience and confidence. We have a chance to be really good."