University of Louisville offensive coordinator Shawn Watson has a smile on his face for a variety of reasons heading into spring practice.
For one, Watson's offensive unit returns seven starters, including Heisman Trophy candidate Teddy Bridgewater, and plenty of other contributors off an offense that averaged 31.2 points and 418.8 yards a game.
Louisville won the Sugar Bowl and finished 11-2 on the season after the offense 120 more points than it did during the 2011 season.
"We have some veteran guys coming back but they see that we can improve," Watson said. "They've stayed humble and hungry."
But that's not the only reason for Watson to be giddy. He's also adding four players who sat out last season after transferring into the program, and several players who were either injured or redshirt, to the mix this spring.
"They keep joking that I have some new toys to play with," Watson said of the other coaches on the staff. "I'm excited to see what we have."
Watson said the offense will use the spring practice time to "get better and get some other guys reps," noting the biggest question mark is finding a backup quarterback and seeing how the running back position plays out.
"We did a scheme evaluation and we saw all of the areas that we need to improve," Watson said. "As good as it was last season, we can still see all the areas that we need to improve. We have to stay hungry and stay humble."
Well, there won't be any competition for the quarterback spot at the University of Louisville since Teddy Bridgewater will be a junior.
After a sensational sophomore season, Bridgewater has gained a ton of national attention and is projected by several NFL Mock Drafts as the No. 1 pick in the 2014 Draft should he opt to come out.
Bridgewater threw for 3,718 yards and 27 touchdowns as a sophomore and dominated Florida in the Sugar Bowl despite suffering a broken wrist and sprained ankle in the regular-season finale against Rutgers.
Watson said Bridgewater is excited to improve.
"He embraces this time of year as much as I do because he knows there are some areas of his game he's got to make better," Watson said.
The competition will be for the back-up spot. Will Gardner missed all of last season with a knee injury and was a highly touted quarterback out of high school, while junior college transfer Brett Nelson is also in camp for spring drills. Gardner was able to practice a few times before the bowl game.
The top two backs from last season – Jeremy Wright and Senorise Perry – won't be in spring drills for the Cardinals. Wright was just a junior but graduated and left school for the NFL Draft, while Perry is recovering from an ACL injury.
But Dominique Brown is back in the backfield and is "ready to go" after missing last season with a knee injury. He was second on the team in 2011 with 533 yards rushing and was expected to be the starter last season.
"He's a different style runner," Watson said. "He's ready to go and he was practicing towards the end of the season and was getting back then."
Sophomore Corvin Lamb is a speedster and will see plenty of reps, while the coaches are excited about the potential of redshirt freshman Brandon Radcliff. Lamb had 13 carries for 50 yards and one TD and three catches for 58 yards and one score last season and made several key plays in the bowl game.
"We're excited about the competition (at running back)," Watson said.
B.J. Butler and Jalen Harrington, who were moved from the defensive side of the ball last season, will remain at the fullback slot.
Perhaps the deepest position on the U of L roster is the wide receiver position with the top three receivers and several others returning.
Junior DeVante Parker led the team with 40 catches for 744 yards and 10 touchdowns, while senior Damian Copeland had 50 catches for 628 yards and two touchdowns and junior Eli Rogers had 46 catches for 505 yards.
Parker was the big-play guy for touchdowns, while Copeland had a bunch of big plays down the field and Rogers was the main target on third down.
The Cardinals have plenty of prospects to replace Scott Radcliff and Andrell Smith, including returning players Kai DeLa Cruz (formerly known as Dominguez) and Jarrett Davis, who will be in the mix this spring.
Two transfers will also get a lot of reps, including Robert Clark and Matt Milton. Clark is a speedy receiver who came from Florida, while the 6-foot-5 Milton is a transfer from Tennessee. Both are eligible to play this season.
"There's a lot of competition in that room," Watson said of the wide receivers unit, noting incoming freshman James Quick won't be able to participate in spring drills but will be integrated into the offense in the fall.
The U of L tight end position is loaded with talent, including returning part-time starter Ryan Hubbell and Florida transfer Gerald Christian.
Hubbell caught 14 passes for 239 yards and two TDs and is considered a solid blocker. He missed the bowl game with an injury.
Christian is an athletic target who drew rave reviews from the coaches last season during practice. Former five-star quarterback Zeke Pike is also in the mix and will get some reps after sitting out, while redshirt freshman Hunter Bowles will also get a look during spring drills.
"We've never had this kind of skill set with this much depth and this much possibility at tight end," Watson said.
Center Mario Benavides and tackle Alex Kupper graduated but the Cardinals will return three starters on the offensive line.
John Miller and Jake Smith return at the guard position, while Jamon Brown will return at tackle after starting all of last season.
The biggest position to fill is center where Watson said Kamran Joyer will get a shot after seeing a lot of reps as a backup there last season.
Nacho Garcia is expected to step in for Kupper, while redshirt freshmen Joe Manley and T.C. Klusman are among the youngster to see reps.