Spring officially started a few days ago, but for the University of Louisville football program it begins today at 4:00 p.m. when the team takes to the practice fields at the Papa John's Cardinal Stadium football complex.
The spring practice session is a time when returning players improve their skills, learn new additions to the play book and compete for a spot atop the depth chart. With 12 starters from U of L's 11-1 team of a year ago that finished the season as Liberty Bowl Champions and ranked 6th in the nation now gone, the competition at a number of open spots should be intense.
"We're excited to get back on the field," U of L head coach Bobby Petrino said on Wednesday. "I know our players had a good winter. I thought they worked extremely hard in the weight room and made some good gains as far as guys that had to gain weight, guys that had to get stronger. But now it's time to get back out on the field, and see exactly where we are."
Despite losing All-Conference USA quarterback Stefan LeFors to graduation, the Cardinal offense should have a smooth transition with sophomore signal-caller Brian Brohm, who saw action in all but one game last year.
"I can't wait to see the leadership take over and see how Brian does as a starter," said Petrino. "I have always believed that [leadership] is one of the responsibilities of the quarterback. He certainly did a nice job of it last year when he was on the field. It will be interesting to see how everyone else rallies around him."
While the offense shouldn't miss a beat with the experienced Brohm, the need to find and develop a backup is a concern for the Cardinals offensive staff.
"Backup quarterback is a concern," said Petrino. "We have to find out who that will be. We have Davis Manning that came in January and we have a couple of walkons that were here last fall that did a nice job for us. We have to give all three of them reps and really see how they do and find out who can handle the pressure. That's an area where we have a lot of work to do."
The unit that lost the most and has become a priority for the coaching staff during spring practice is the secondary, where junior William Gay is the lone returning starter.
"Secondary is where we don't have a lot of depth in the spring," explained the Cardinals third-year head coach. "We did recruit a lot of young players that will be here in the fall. I like the guys we have back there, it's just a matter of depth."
With redshirt freshman Rod Council slated as a first team corner, along with Gay, the major focus will be on the safety positions. The Sharp brothers, Antoine and Brandon, both enter spring as the first unit safeties. After making a position move from wide receiver to cornerback last year, Antoine will once again be spending the next few weeks of practice learning the strong safety spot.
"We will work Antoine Sharp at both safety and corner, which is a little new for him," continued Petrino. "Last year he played corner in our nickelback package and he did an outstanding job of tackling from that position. We kind of feel like strong safety would be his best position."
In addition to finding athletes that will step up at each position, Petrino is looking forward to seeing how the team's personality develops, as well as molding his top-rated offense of a year ago to best fit this team's abilities.
"I want to see what type of personalities that our offense and defense take on," Petrino said. "Every year it is a little bit different. We have always had a big playbook and we always try to build the offense around the type of players that we have."
Spring practice is open to the public and fans are encouraged to attend. The team will practice again on Friday at 3:30 p.m., as well as on Saturday and Sunday at noon.
"We just have to see those guys tackle...I think that will be the biggest thing," said Petrino.
"We have a very experienced group of receivers coming back," explained Petrino. "We just need to find out who that go-to guy is."