"It was a grind," said senior defensive tackle Earl Heyman. "Training camp was a grind by every definition of the word. We had some injuries but that's not going to stop us. It was a physical camp. It was very, very physical from day one."
So just how physical was fall camp for the Louisville football team? From the sound of things it was an extremely physical affair.
"The first day we put pads on we had like four concussions – on both sides of the ball," Heyman said. "It was ridiculous. The head trainer said it was the most physical practice he's seen in his 13 years here. I think it can help us a lot. Being physical and playing with energy becomes a habit."
That experience over the past few weeks helped foster an even closer team than the one that entered camp earlier this month.
"I think we've grown a lot closer," Heyman said. "Last year the offense might have been salty towards the defense but not this year. This year there's more of a sense of urgency and togetherness on the team. I think that's going to take us far. I love this team."
While a physical camp should pay dividends for the Cardinals this season, it also had a downside – injuries. Mozell Axson, Louisville's most experienced linebacker, suffered a season-ending knee injury last week. Scott Long, the Cards top wide receiver, also injured his foot and is expected to miss the first few weeks of the season. Despite the injuries, Louisville coach Steve Kragthorpe said he's seen his team make lots of progress on the field.
"I think we made good progress," Kragthorpe said. "It all depends on what we get done this week and how we play in terms of where we're at starting the season. But I like this football team and the chemistry of this football team. I think we've worked extremely hard and challenged each other throughout the course of training camp."
According to Kragthorpe, having the Kentucky game first on the schedule again this season also helped focus the team on the immediate task at hand – winning back the Governor's Cup Trophy from the Wildcats on August 31.
"We've had a very focused training camp," Kragthorpe said. "Our guys understand the importance of this game and have talked about it all during training camp. It's a very important game. This is the game in the state of Kentucky. It's a marquee matchup. It's a huge game for us, no question about it."
If Louisville plans to atone for last season's 40-34 loss to Kentucky, the Cardinals will have to get several newcomers to step up and make a difference on the field. Three newcomers – two junior college transfers (Antwon Canady and Jon Dempsey) and one true freshman (Dexter Heyman) – are slated to start at linebacker. Several untested and unseasoned wide receivers will also play critical roles, including sophomores Doug Beaumont and Troy Pascley. Kragthorpe also said true freshmen Greg Scruggs and Kardell Dunning could see action.
Since many of Louisville's key performers don't have Division 1 experience, Kragthorpe and staff have done everything possible to create game-like conditions during fall camp, including two recent scrimmages complete with college officiating crews to simulate game day conditions.
"We've tried to put them in as many situations as we possibly could that would simulate a game day atmosphere," Kragthorpe said.
With lowered expectations coming into the season– there was national championship talk last preseason while the Cardinals are picked to finish seventh in the Big East this season – Kragthorpe hopes his team can pull out a big win against the Wildcats this weekend to build some positive vibes for the rest of the season.
"You always want to win your first game (because) it gives you some positive momentum," said Kragthorpe, who admitted that last year's loss to the Wildcats "took a little bit out of us."
With so many new players being counted on for both sides, veteran quarterback Hunter Cantwell could provide the decisive edge Louisville needs. Cantwell, says Kragthorpe, had a great fall camp.
"Hunter had a very good camp," Kragthorpe said. "He's managed the game well, he's done a great job leading this offense and he's really taken control of the reins. I really like the way he's approached it. He wants to be a leader of this football team and I like the way the guys have embraced him."
With Monday off, Louisville will return to the practice field Tuesday to resume preparations for the season opener.
"We've put (last) season behind us and it's time to look forward to this season," Heyman said. "We've been preparing and now we're just anxious to play."
"The bottom line is we've got to play and win games," added Kragthorpe.