Louisville Looking to Make Waves in 2015

Louisville couldn’t have asked for much more from its first season in the ACC. The 2014-15 season saw the Cardinals finish with a 9-4 overall record and a 5-3 mark in conference play. That record includes a puzzling two-point, early-season loss to Virginia, a seven-point loss at Clemson and a 12-point defeat to No. 2 Florida State.

The game against the Seminoles was particularly heartbreaking as Louisville lead 21-0 in the second quarter, perhaps showing a glimpse of the program’s potential.

The excitement is certainly warranted as season two of the second Bobby Petrino era gets underway. Petrino’s bizarre coaching odyssey is well-documented with his lone season in the NFL followed by success at Arkansas before leaving in disgrace to lick his wounds at Western Kentucky. He’s been welcomed back to Louisville and it’s not hard to understand why with his 50-13 overall record there over five seasons and three conferences all separated by more than a decade of football.

Last season, Petrino learned that he had two talented young quarterbacks who made the transition from budding NFL star Teddy Bridgewater far easier than many expected. Sophomore Will Gardner and freshman Reggie Bonnafon combined to lead the Cardinals offense to finish 47th in the nation is total passing.

This spring, Gardner has sat out practice while recovering from a shoulder injury leaving Bonnafon to battle Kyle Bolin and Tyler Ferguson. Petrino hasn’t tipped his hand one way or the other but it’s nearly impossible to not envision Bonnafon and maybe Gardner as well on the field in the fall.

Also in the backfield will be last year’s leading rusher Brandon Radcliff (144 carries, 737 yards, 12 TDs) along with L.J. Scott (6.9 yards per carry). One of the players generating buzz this spring has been junior college transfer Jeremy Smith who will also be a major factor running the ball. He brings a physical running style that should provide a nice change of pace. He ran for 1,735 yards and 17 touchdowns on 205 carries in 11 games for Fresno City College last season.

The biggest challenge on offense will be replacing leading receiver DeVante Parker (43 catches 855 yards, five TDs). James Quick is the leader among returning players (33 catches, 555 yards, three TDs) and he’s been joined by transfers Jamari Staples (UAB) and Ja’Quay Williams (Texas A&M) atop the depth chart. It remains to be seen if there’s a breakout star among them, but Louisville’s quarterbacks have thrived in recent years at spreading the ball around to lots of targets.

On defense there are some questions in the secondary that may well have been fully addressed this spring, including how to replace the entire defensive backfield. Trumaine Washington stepped up after an injury to Shaq Wiggins.

Another transfer factor is imposing 6’5″, 230-pound defender Josh Harvey-Clemons. He chose to follow defensive coordinator Todd Grantham to Louisville after Harvey-Clemons was dismissed by the Bulldogs after multiple violations of team rules. His ability on the field however has never been in doubt as the No. 1 outside linebacker and No. 17 best overall prospect in 2012 by ESPN. He also finished third for Georgia in tackles (66) in 2013 despite missing two games. He played safety and a hybrid linebacker/defensive back role for Grantham previously.

Chucky Williams looks to have the edge at safety so far this spring so Harvey-Clemons will likely play closer to the line which will allow him to use his size if he can stay on the field.

The defensive line has been strong this spring and is lead by three seniors in defensive ends Sheldon Rankins and Pio Vatuvei as well as tackle DeAngelo Brown. They’ve done a great job against the run and have gotten consistent pressure on the quarterbacks during spring practice.

Keith Kelsey and Keith Brown, both seniors, will hold down the linebacking corps with Kelsey in particular leading by example.

Todd Grantham has said this group has the ambitious goal of being the best group of linebackers in the ACC. That’s some serious confidence, but not entirely unreasonable given some of the question marks around the conference.

And that’s a microcosm of the entire upcoming season for Louisville. There is opportunity in the Atlantic division in particular with Clemson replacing several starters from the top defense in the nation and Florida State relying on plenty of talented, but largely unproven young players. The Cardinals get Clemson at home on a Thursday in mid-September and travel to Florida State exactly a month later. Outside of those games, the only major potential stumbling block is the opener in Atlanta against Auburn. That’s a no-lose situation as it’s a non-conference game that can only better prepare them for the Tigers and Seminoles.

If Louisville can avoid hiccups like they had against Virginia last season, this could be a very special season for the Cardinals.

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