Gone are six players who were selected in the 2004 NFL Draft, including quarterback Stefan LeFors (Carolina Panthers), running back Eric Shelton (Carolina Panthers) and wide receiver J.R. Russell (Tampa Bay Buccaneers). Folks, those three simply led the nation's top-ranked offense in passing, rushing and receiving in 2004.
On defense, the Cardinals must replace six starters from a unit that finished last season ranked among the nation's Top 15, including middle linebacker Robert McCune (Washington Redskins), defensive end Marcus Jones and safety Kerry Rhodes (New York Jets). McCune led the team in tackles each of the past two seasons, while Jones ranks high on the all-time U of L sack list. Rhodes led the team with six interceptions a year ago.
Third-year Louisville coach Bobby Petrino hasn't appeared concerned about finding replacements for his offensive stars. He's recruited well each of the past three years and has stockpiled plenty of talented options, on both sides of the ball, to turn.
He'll replace LeFors, the nation's most accurate passer in '04 with sophomore Brian Brohm, the 2003 USA Today High School Player of the Year. Replacing the bruising Shelton is 6-3, 250-pound Michael Bush, another former high school All-American and U of L's second-leading rusher last year. Three seniors – Joshua Tinch, Broderick Clark and Montrell Jones – shouldn't have a problem replacing Russell's 75 receptions.
If you're watching closely today, keep an eye on these three first time starters today because their play could go a long way toward determining the games outcome: Eric Wood, Matt Sanders and Brandon Sharp.
Wood, a 6-4, 305-pound redshirt freshman from Cincinnati, Ohio, might have the biggest shoes to fill on offense. Not only will Wood play his first collegiate snaps against UK, he'll also be the one making them to Brohm from his center position.
If not for the slow progress Renardo Foster has made recovering from a knee injury suffered last season, Wood might not have been thrust into the position he finds himself today. Had Foster been ready to go in the season-opener – he won't play against UK – Petrino might have been content to keep Jason Spitz at center and go with the 6-7, 330-pound Foster at guard. Instead, the coach moved Spitz back to guard two weeks into fall camp, inserting Wood into the slot Will Rabatin ably played last year.
"Some of it had to do with Renardo's health, some of it to do with Eric," Petrino admitted. "Though (Eric) only played center about two and half days during spring practice, when we went back and watched the video he showed a great knack for the position – the quickness to be able to slip through and get on the linebackers and the ability to get leverage on the nose (tackle)."
"He's done a nice job in practice," added Petrino. "We've surrounded him with two strong guys and I think that's our best combination.
FS Brandon Sharp has played well
during fall camp.
"I definitely have confidence with him there at center," Brohm said. "We worked together all summer with snaps and exchanges and I have a good relationship with him.
Sanders is expected to start at middle linebacker, though Petrino said as late as last Wednesday that both Sanders and junior college transfer Nate Harris still had a shot to earn the starting nod.
"I think Matt Sanders is a great player and Nate Harris and Lamar Myles are both good players," said Dumervil. "I have no concern at all."
Johnson, one of three starting linebackers, agreed.
"The linebackers are really close," Johnson said. "Matt has worked in well – the chemistry is there. We just have to go out and prove it on the field."
And if Wood has the biggest shoes to fill on offense, Brandon Sharp might have the biggest to fill on defense, replacing Kerry Rhodes at free safety.
A 5-11, 195-pound junior, Sharp has been a special team's standout the past two seasons, while also seeing significant action in a reserve capacity on defense. Petrino has praised the junior in recent weeks, particularly for his willingness to be physical and tackle in the secondary.
"Brandon played as well as anybody on defense in our scrimmage the other day," Petrino said.
Louisville finds itself a 22-point favorite against Kentucky primarily because it returns 13 starters from last year's 11-1 team, but you can be certain the nine new starters will play an important role against the Wildcats this afternoon.