Big East Preview -- Part 1

This is the first in a seven part preseason tour of the Big East. I'll begin my pre-season tour of the Big East with a look at the Louisville Cardinals, who are expected to represent the Big East in the BCS in their inaugural season. I'll review lost starters, expected replacements, and incoming recruits.


When the Big East disintegrated two years ago, Louisville was an obvious choice to augment the depleted ranks of the conference.  Former Head Coach John L. Smith had taken the Cardinals to five consecutive bowl games.  Louisville was expected to be a solid addition to the Big East.  However, nobody could foresee the developments of the past two years.  New Head Coach Bobby Petrino, who replaced Smith in 2003 when John L. left for greener pastures at Michigan State, led Louisville (11-1, 8-0 Conference USA) to the Conference USA title in 2004.  Big deal, eh?  No, not really.  But how about finishing #10 in the final BCS standings?  Louisville nearly crashed the BCS party.  Only a last minute loss at Miami in the Orange Bowl (the stadium, not the game) separated the Cardinals from joining undefeated Utah as BCS crashers.  Louisville settled for a "non-BCS championship" matchup against #9 BCS ranked Boise State in the Liberty Bowl, from which the Cardinals emerged victorious, 44-40. 

Last year, Louisville featured the nation's most balanced and prolific offense and a vastly upgraded defense.  Petrino employs a multiple spread offense – a 3WR set is the base formation but the Cardinals will deploy 4WR, 2TE, 2WR/2RB, and more traditional 2RB (with FB and TE) alignments.  Petrino plays a 4-3 defense very similar to that of Rutgers, with LBs inside undersized pass rushing DEs aligned wide.  Louisville frequently aligns in a Cover 2 (two deep safeties) look but rarely plays it.  Instead, the Cardinals typically bring a safety up to LB depth.  Louisville uses a lot of zone coverage underneath in conjunction with zone blitzes, trying to force a quick throw into coverage.  Louisville faces high expectations in its inaugural Big East season.  The Cardinals are expected to be the league's standard-bearer in the BCS.  That's a tall order for a team that only played two Top 25 opponents last year and lost half of its starting lineup.  Petrino lost 11 starters plus one kicker off an outstanding team.  Petrino is looking to reload.  He has depth to replace the losses on offense but the defense, shaky as recently as 2003, is a bigger concern.  Here's a look at the highly touted Cardinals of Louisville. 


Louisville lost 5 starters from a juggernaut that was balanced and deep:

  • 250 rushing yards per game (#1 in the Conference USA and #8 of 117 in Division 1A)
  • 289 passing yards per game (#1 in Conference USA and #9 in Division 1A)
  • 539 total yards per game (#1 in Conference USA and #1 in Division 1A)
  • 50 points per game (#1 in Conference USA and #1 in Division 1A)

The Cardinals' OLine returns five players with starting experience.  Louisville uses a strong-side/weak-side designation for its OL, as opposed to the more typical "right" and "left".  Their OL will flip-flop sides of the formation.  Second Team All-Conference USA C Will Rabatin is the only departure off the starting lineup.  Also, backup SG Bubba Marshall did not return.  Three-year starter, two-time First Team All-Conference USA, and former freshman All-American Sr WT Travis Leffew is the anchor of the Louisville OLine.  Three-year starter, two-time Second Team All-Conference USA, and former starting WG RS Sr Jason Spitz was switched to center to replace Rabatin.  Former starting ST Jr Renardo Foster, who missed all but four games after injuring his ACL, will replace Spitz at WG.  Starting SG RS Jr Kurt Quarterman and starting ST Sr Jeremy Darveau, who replaced Foster last year, also return.  So WT Breno Giacomini and RS So WG Danny Barlowe return as backups.  RS So C Michael Sturgeon, RS So SG Devon May, and So ST Josh Deer move up onto the two-deep as reserves.  JUCOs Jr WT Marcel Benson and Jr ST Marcus Gordon will push Giacomini and Deer, respectively, for the backup jobs.  Petrino has a veteran OLine with a total of 87 combined starts.  As a result of blowouts Louisville recorded last year, Petrino's reserves are also experienced.  Even those moving into the two-deep. 

Louisville suffered a big loss with the departure of two-year starter, two-time First Team All-Conference USA, and leading receiver WR J.R. Russell (73 receptions for 968 yards and 7 TDs), who led Conference USA in receptions.  Third Team All-Conference USA TE Adam McCauley (22 receptions for 309 yards and 3 TDs) and backup WR Tiger Jones (9 receptions for 150 yards and 2 TDs) also departed.  Two-year starters Sr WR Broderick Clark (27 receptions for 441 yards and 4 TDs) and Sr Joshua Tinch (36 receptions for 510 yards and one TD) return, as does second leading receiver RS Sr WR Montrell Jones (37 receptions for 564 yards and 3 TDs), who split starting duties with Clark.  So WR Harry Douglas (5 receptions for 43 yards) is the only experienced backup.  RS Jr WR Jimmy Riley and RS Fr WR Mario Urrutia will join Douglas as backups.  So TE Gary Barnidge (7 receptions for 85 yards and 4 TDs) will replace McCauley in the starting lineup.  So TE Scott Kuhn will backup Barnidge.  Petrino possesses the depth to endure his losses in the receiving corps and that depth should enable Louisville to weather the loss of Russell. 

Louisville suffered an unexpected loss when two-year starter, two-time All-Conference USA (Third Team in 2003 and Second Team in 2004), and leading rusher TB Eric Shelton (146 carries for 938 yards and 20 TDs plus 6 receptions for 35 yards) declared early for the NFL draft, where he was selected in the 2nd Round by the Carolina Panthers.  Backup TB Lionel Gates (76 carries for 373 yards and 7 TDs plus 10 receptions for 71 yards and 2 TDs), the Cardinals' leading rusher in 2003, also departed.  Don't pity Petrino, though.  Jr TB Michael Bush (132 carries for 734 yards and 7 TDs plus 11 receptions for 155 yards), who started four games last year and was the Cardinals' second leading rusher, will replace Shelton as the starter.  Former FB So Kolby Smith (37 carries for 347 yards and 4 TDs plus 9 receptions for 87 yards and one TD) was switched to TB and will backup Bush.  Former backup FB Jr Deriontae Taylor will replace Smith as the "starting" FB, which is just a part-time role in Louisville's spread offense.  Petrino has plenty of depth at TB to absorb the loss of two big contributors without missing a beat. 

As at WR and TB, Louisville suffered a big hit at QB with the departure of two-year starter, two-time First Team All-Conference USA, and Conference USA Player of the Year Stefan LeFors (189 of 257 for 2,596 yards, 20 TDs, and 3 INTs plus 71 carries for 333 yards and 3 TDs).  And, as at WR and TB, Petrino has an experienced backup waiting in the wings.  Conference USA Freshman of the Year and former backup QB So Brian Brohm (66 of 98 for 819 yards, 6 TDs, and 2 INTs plus 27 carries for 81 yards and 2 TDs), one of the most highly touted QB of the 2004 national recruiting class, played in all but one game last year, typically in the 1st Half before the outcome was decided.  RS Fr Hunter Cantwell will battle fellow RS Fr Bill Ashburn for the backup job.  Petrino replaces the veteran leadership of LeFors with a player who may even be better.  And who is already experienced under fire. 


Louisville lost 6 starters from a much-improved defense that went from among the nation's worst to among the best in one year:

  • 109 rushing yards per game (#1 in Conference USA and #18 of 117 in Division 1A)
  • 197 passing yards per game (#2 in the Big East and #30 in Division 1A)
  • 306 total yards per game (#1 in the Big East and #15 in Division 1A)
  • 20 points per game (#1 in the Big East and #24 in Division 1A)

Two-year starter, two-time All-Conference USA (Third Team in 2003 and First Team in 2004), leading tackler MLB Robert McCune (115 tackles, 4 TFLs, 2 sacks, and one INT), who as fifth among tacklers in Conference USA, is the only loss at LB.  Two-year starter RS Sr WLB Brandon Johnson (84 tackles, 7.5 TFLs, and 2 INTs) and starting SLB RS Jr Abe Brown (55 tackles, 6 sacks, one INT, and one FF) return.  Former backup MLB RS So Mike Sanders (26 tackles) will battle RS Fr Lamar Myles and JUCO Jr Nate Harris for the vacant starting MLB job.  RS So WLB Preston Smith (17 tackles) and RS So SLB Malik Jackson (8 tackles) return as backups. 

Petrino lost half his starting DLine, including his best DL – two-year starter and two-time All-Conference USA (Second Team in 2003 and First Team in 2004) DE Marcus Jones (45 tackles, 14 TFLs, 9 sacks, and one FF).  Starting DT Bobby Leffew (36 tackles, 7 TFLs, 5 sacks, and one FR) also departed.  Two-year starter Sr DT Montavious Stanley (30 tackles, 4 sacks, 2 FF, and 2 FRs) and Sr DE Elvis Dumervil (52 tackles, 11 TFLs, 10 sacks, one FF, and one FR) return to anchor the DLine.  Former backups Jr DT Amobi Okoye (26 tackles and 2 TFLs) and RS Sr Chad Rimpsey (19 tackles, 3.5 TFLs, 2 sacks, and 2 FF) will replace Leffew and Jones, respectively, in the starting lineup.  JUCO Jr DE Zach Anderson, So DE Brandon Cox (3 tackles), RS Fr DT Maurice Mitchell, and RS Fr DT Adrian Grady are expected to be the backups.  While the starters are experienced, the backup DL are very green.  Petrino can't afford any injuries on his DLine. 

The Cardinal secondary suffered heavy losses.  Two-year starter and First Team All-Conference USA FS Kerry Rhodes (57 tackles, 6 INTs, one FF, and one FR), the leader of the unit, has departed.  So have two-year starting CB Antoine Harris (28 tackles, 2 TFLs, and 2 INTs), starting SS J.T. Haskins (38 tackles, 5 TFLs, and 2 FF), backup SS (and former starter) Brent Johnson (24 tackles, 4 TFLs, 3 sacks, 2 INTs, and one FR), and backup CB Domonique Dunbar (9 tackles).  Jr CB William Gay (21 tackles) is the sole returning starter.  Former backup CB RS Sr Antoine Sharp (29 tackles and 2 FR) will replace Haskins at SS.  Former backup FS Jr Brandon Sharp (11 tackles and one INT) will replace Rhodes.  RS Fr Rod Council will replace Harris as the starting CB opposite Gay.  RS So FS Jon Russell (11 tackles and one INT), and RS Jr Gavin Smart (9 tackles), RS Fr SS Justin Deeley, and RS So CB Deon Palmer, a transfer from Georgia Southern, will constitute an inexperienced second team.  The secondary is very inexperienced and lacks depth. 


Petrino suffered one loss from a unit that was anticipated to return intact.  Jr P Brent Moody (41 yards per punt) transferred to Florida State.  RS So P Todd Flannery (40 yard average on two punts) will likely replace Moody.  RS So PK Arthur Carmody (12 of 15 FGAs and 77 of 77 XPAs), who set an NCAA record for consecutive XPAs in a single season, returns.  Sr WR Broderick Clark (21 yards per return) and So WR Harry Douglass (21 yards per return) will resume KOR duties while RS Sr WR Montrell Jones (10 yards per return and one TD) will handle PR responsibilities.  Petrino has formidable specialists with only a need at the rather under-utilized punter position. 


Louisville has an 11 game schedule with 6 home games.  The Cardinals play once each Thursday (Pittsburgh), Friday (Rutgers), and Sunday (@ Kentucky).  Louisville ends it season in early December and, as a result, gets bye weeks in early September after the Sunday opener, in late October before the Thursday night game, and in mid November after the Friday night game.  The Cardinal's non-conference schedule is respectable with contests @ Kentucky and against Insight Bowl Champion Oregon State and Continental Bowl participant North Carolina.  The conference schedule is favorable with a home date against the Cardinals' closest competition – Pittsburgh; Louisville avoids a visit to the Carrier Dome but does travel to Morgantown.  Louisville has a home slate that is should sweep but the Cardinals face tough opponents in Oregon State, North Carolina, and Pittsburgh.  The road schedule is not very challenging, with the obvious exception of a trip to Morgantown (West Virginia).  The key to the season is the October 5th game at West Virginia, which could assure Louisville of sole possession of the Big East crown.  The Cardinals schedule again lacks Top 25 opponents and could position Louisville for a run an undefeated season and an outside shot run at the national championship in the Rose Bowl.   


September 4

@ Kentucky

September 17

Oregon State

September 24

@ South Florida

October 1

Florida Atlantic

October 8

North Carolina

October 15

@ West Virginia

October 22

@ Cincinnati

November 3


November 11


November 26


December 3

@ Connecticut



I predict that Louisville (11-0, 7-0 Big East) will go undefeated against an accommodating schedule.  Hapless Kentucky should not pose a challenge in the season-opening Governor's Cup game.  Oregon State, North Carolina, Cincinnati, Syracuse, and Connecticut were bowl teams last year but are rebuilding this year.  South Florida, Florida Atlantic, and Rutgers are overmatched.  Louisville should roll into Morgantown at 5-0.  The Cardinals' firepower poses a bad matchup for the more methodical Mountaineers. Louisville will force West Virginia out of its comfort zone and will win surprisingly easy.  Louisville will beat Pittsburgh in the Big East game of the year to cement the Big East title and BCS bowl bid.  A schedule that features six bowl teams from 2004 nonetheless lacks significant challenges that will not allow Louisville to overcome the Big Least stigma.  Instead of playing in the Rose Bowl for the national championship, the Cardinals will face SEC champion Louisiana State in the Sugar Bowl. 

Coming Next:  Big East Preview, Part 2.  I'll continue my pre-season tour of the Big East with a look at the rebuilding West Virginia Mountaineers.  I'll review lost starters, expected replacements, and incoming recruits.   

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