Last season, Louisville had to rally past Rutgers in the season finale to avoid the programs first losing season in a decade. Shortly after the Cardinals disappointing season concluded, Steve Kragthorpe made drastic changes to his coaching staff, firing both offensive coordinator Charlie Stubbs and defensive coordinator Mike Cassity. Besides Cassity, Kragthorpe dismissed his entire defensive staff.
Now, as fall camp begins, Kragthorpe and Louisville fans are pinning much of their hopes for improvement on new coordinators Jeff Brohm and Ron English. Brohm promises to restore balance to a Louisville offense that lacked it last season. He'll build around senior QB Hunter Cantwell, a slew of talented running backs and an o-line led by senior stars Eric Wood and George Bussey.
English, on the other hand, figures to have his work cut out. With a lack of experience and depth at linebacker and safety, English must find a way to turn around one of the worst defenses in the Big East. It won't be easy and he'll likely have to rely on several newcomers at some key positions.
Can the Cardinals, under the direction of Brohm and English, turn things around quickly? It's the top storyline for Louisville heading into the 2008 season.
Will the defense make positive strides?
There's no debating the subject. It's a stone-cold fact. The Louisville defense was woeful in 2007. Now armed with a new coordinator (Ron English) and new position coaches Ken Delgado (defensive line), Bill Miller (linebackers) and Eric Lewis (cornerbacks), the UofL defense hopes to show major improvements this season.
Last season, the Cards generated little pressure on opposing quarterbacks, got burned deep often, tackled poorly and had trouble communicating and aligning properly. Six starters from last season's defense must be replaced. Depth and inexperience are major issues, particularly at linebacker.
English does have some building blocks. Senior defensive tackles Earl Heyman and Adrian Grady form a talented tandem in the middle. Bobby Buchanan flourished after moving to safety last season and sophomore cornerback Johnnie Patrick is emerging as a big-time talent.
The keys for the Cardinals are many. Ron English and Co. must find a way to generate a pass rush despite lacking a true passing rushing force on the end. Linebacker coach Bill Miller must somehow patch together a servicable linebacker corps. And English and Eric Lewis must find a way to keep opposing receivers in front of their defensive backs.
Add it all up and English and Co. have a major task at hand.
Who will emerge at linebacker?
All three starting linebackers from last season – Lamar Myles, Preston Smith and Malik Jackson – are gone. That's a lot of talent and experience to replace. And it means Bill Miller will have his work cut out trying to piece together a winning combination in the middle of the Louisville defense.
James Bryant, a transfer from Miami, Chris Campa, a junior college transfer and Mozell Axson emerged out of spring practice with the upper-hand. Those three will be counted on early and often until junior college transfers Jon Dempsey and Antwon Canady and true freshmen Dexter Heyman and Keith Baker emerge.
Louisville also needs someone like converted safety Brandon Heath, a former four-star high school prospect, to emerge as a contributor at linebacker.
How will the situation shakeout at wide receiver?
It's never easy replacing a playmaker like Harry Douglas. The situation becomes even more daunting when two other big-time wide outs like Mario Urrutia and Pat Carter also depart. If those losses weren't enough for the Louisville offense to overcome, the departures of reliable tight ends Gary Barnidge and Scott Kuhn will make Steve Kragthorpe's task a difficult one.
Junior wide receiver Scott Long is the new man on the perimeter for the UofL offense. He'll be counted on to put up major numbers in the passing game this season.
What Louisville seemingly lacks is a Douglas-like difference-maker. The off-season dismissal of junior speedster JaJuan Spillman hurt, and, combined with the shooting of speedy junior playmaker and return man Trent Guy, Louisville lost their two fastest and most shifty wide outs.
If the Louisville passing game is to continue to soar, Chris Vaughn, a senior transfer from Notre Dame, Doug Beaumont, a talented sophomore, and one or two newcomers like JUCO transfer Maurice Clark will have to step up and make positive contributions.
How many freshmen and JUCO transfers will crack two-deep?
Depth is a big concern on both sides of the ball for Louisville, especially at linebacker, safety and tight end.
Don't be surprised to see several newcomers on the field early in the season for the Cardinals.
At linebacker, several fresh faces could crack the two-deep, including JUCO transfers Chris Campa, Jon Dempsey and Antwon Canady and freshmen Dexter Heyman and Keith Baker. Several newcomers could see action at safety, including JUCO transfers Josh Wiley and Justin Mathews and true freshmen Daniel Brown and Kardell Dunning, two late additions to Louisville's recruiting class. At tight, JUCO transfers Rock Keys and Cameron Graham will compete for playing time, as will true freshman Nathan Nord, a three-star prospect from Florida.
While relying on JUCO's and true freshmen probably isn't an ideal way to approach a Big East slate that features three preseason Top 25 programs, it's likely the hand that Steve Kragthorpe will be forced to play this season.
The rapid development of the JUCO's and freshmen will, in all likelihood, have a major bearing on the Cardinals final record this season.