U of L head coach Bobby Petrino has a loaded offense!
Almost certainly, opposing defensive coordinators will have nightmares as they try to devise ways to slow down, forget about stopping them, the U of L offense next fall.
Simply put, Petrino has a multitude of talented weapons to use in his offensive arsenal. Starting with senior quarterback Stefan LeFors, who threw for over 400 yards in the annual spring game, the Cardinals have an experienced and talented leader to make the right decisions and get the ball in the hands of what figures to be one of the nation's top receiving corps.
"Stefan's real comfortable with running our offense," Petrino continued. "He's always done a good job doing what we've coached him to do and he just distributes the ball to alot of different receivers."
At wideout, LeFors has seemingly endless options at his disposal. J.R. Russell and Joshua Tinch, both 6-foot-3, have NFL potential and performed well this spring. Each also had more than 100 yards receiving in the last week's spring game. Tennessee transfer Montrell Jones, who may be the most naturally gifted receiver, adds a physical presence to the group, while Broderick Clark and Tiger Jones have talent, speed and experience. And then there's Harry Douglas, a redshirt freshman whose emergence this spring as a future star adds yet another talented playmaker for LeFors to throw the ball to.
But the strength for the U of L offense should be a big and talented line and a long list of talented ball carriers. Led by returning starters Travis Leffew, Jason Spitz and Renardo Foster, the 2004 front five has every reason it can be better than last season's outstanding unit.
"I hate to use the word potential because that means you haven't done it yet," offensive line coach Mike Summers said. "But if we continue the direction we're going we've got a chance to be a good offensive line."
Making both LeFors' and the line's job easier will be running backs Lionel Gates, Eric Shelton, Michael Bush, and Reggie Bradshaw. Gates had an impressive spring game, carrying 16 times for 134 yards, and appears ready to assume command in the Cardinals back. And while the talented Bush missed the entire spring with a broken foot, he, along with Shelton will give the Cardinals one of the most potent running back trios in college football next season.
On defense, speed is the key word. First year coordinator Mike Cassity's unit isn't the most physical, but with a starting trio of linebackers that run the forty in 4.5 seconds or less, he certainly has some troops that can fly around the field and make plays.
"We're fast enough to get to the football," Petrino said. "But we have to tackle well and gang tackle to be successful [on defense]."
Robert McCune, who anchors the defense from his middle linebacker position and made strides this spring shedding blockers and making plays, will be bracketed by Abe Brown and Preston Smith. Both Brown, who moved from safety, and Smith were pleasant surprises this spring. In fact, Smith's performance elevated him on the depth chart ahead of returning starter Brandon Johnson. Willie Johnson, a redshirt freshman from Tallahassee, Florida, showed promise on the outside. And senior Jonathan Jackerson had a big spring in the middle.
Montavious Stanley seemed to benefit this spring after moving inside from defensive end, should form a formidable tandem with senior Bobby Leffew, who sat out spring drills. Sophomore Amobi Okoye gained valuable reps this spring in place of Leffew and the possibility remains that 6'3, 320 pound tackle Tyrone Saterfield could return to action next fall.
At end, senior Marcus Jones bulked up to around the 250-pound range and looked better equipped during spring practice to stop the run. Joined by redshirt freshman Shane Bailey, the Cardinal defensive line should be able to generate more pressure on opposing quarterbacks next season than they did in 2003. Chad Rimpsey, Elvis Dumervil and several true freshman like Brandon Cox, Adrian Grady, and Devin Shivers should provide additional depth next season.
There should be no question that the U of L secondary will be a vastly improved unit. Corners William Gay and Antoine Harris enjoyed strong springs and returning starters Kerry Rhodes, who figures to be one of the team's leaders on defense, and Brent Johnson at safety are cause for optimism. However, the emergence of safety's Malik Jackson, a fierce hitter, and sophomore Brandon Sharp bode well for the unit's depth. Sharp's older brother, Antoine, and senior J.T. Haskins, should provide quality depth on the corner.
"I think we'll have more depth at linebacker [next season]," Petrino said. "I like that our young safeties and corner backs are improved. At the start of spring practice, the receivers had their way but [the secondary] hung in, kept working on their technique and now they're more confident and it's competitive."
Also expect improved play from the U of L special teams, despite the loss of kicker turned rugby standout, Nate Smith. Not only has returning punter Brent Moody improved, but Smith replacement, Art Carmody was perhaps one of the most impressive performers of the spring with his place kicking skills. With range past 50 yards, Carmody showed an accurate leg the entire spring.
And with guys like Broderick Clark, William Gay, Harry Douglas, and Montrell Jones, U of L special teams coach Tony Levine has plenty of options to return both kick offs and punts next season.
Bottom line, there's no reason the 2004 Louisville Cardinals shouldn't exceed the successes of last season's squad. If the defense can continue to raise it's level, a C-USA title in Louisville's last season in the league is a distinct possibility.
EARLY PREDICTION: LOUISVILLE VS. KENTUCKY
With spring practice now concluded at U of L, we might as well throw out the first guantlet and kick off the annual off season predictions and debate about which team will take home the Governor's Cup Trophy next September.
And mark this down. The season opener between the two in-state rivals at Papa John's Cardinal Stadium won't be a contest!
With a superior offense, better overall talent, the home field advantage and a defense that will surprise folks around the Commonwealth, Bobby Petrino will run his record to 2-0 against Rich Brooks and the Wildcats next Sept. 5.
The early line should figure to be something like this Louisville 45, Kentucky 17.
Okay, let the debate begin!