Rogers is just one of a handful of young players that made an impact for Louisville last season. As a true freshman in 2011, Rogers led Louisville with 41 catches and finished second on the team with 454 yards. He finished the year on a high note, catching 15 passes over the final three games, including seven in the Belk Bowl over NC State. Parker also had a 100-yard game, catching seven passes for 106 yards against Cincinnati in mid-October. Louisville has a solid group of receivers, so the receptions could be spread out among a couple of players. However, Rogers and DeVante Parker should be the go-to guys for quarterback Teddy Bridgewater.
Pryor was a surprise addition to the starting lineup last year, but his emergence helped to stabilize the back of the defense. He played in all 13 games and started the final seven as a true freshman. Pryor collected 43 stops, one sack, two interceptions and broke up five passes. The sophomore is expected to be a full-time starter in 2012 and with another offseason under his belt, has a chance to blossom into a contender for all-conference honors. Pryor will team with Hakeem Smith to give Louisville one of the best safety duos in the Big East.
Even though the Cardinals ranked 10th nationally against the run last year, coach Charlie Strong wants this unit to be more physical at the point of attack. Philon should play a key role in stuffing opposing ground attacks, especially since he came on over the second half of last season. He made six starts in 2011 and led all Louisville defensive linemen with 36 stops. Philon also picked up six tackles for a loss and registered 1.5 sacks. The junior has room to improve and his development will be crucial to keeping Louisville’s rush defense among the best in the nation.
Parker made some noise as a freshman last year, catching 18 passes for 291 yards. While his 18 receptions weren’t particularly overwhelming, he converted six of those for touchdowns and averaged 16.2 yards per reception. Parker posted only one game of more than three catches, grabbing four receptions for 52 yards and one score against FIU. At 6-foot-2 and 204 pounds, Parker has a good frame and will only get stronger with more time on campus. The sophomore may not lead the team in catches in 2012, but he could approach 10 touchdown receptions.
Replacing second-team All-Big East linebacker Dexter Heyman is one of the top priorities for defensive coordinator Vance Bedford, but the defense isn’t without options. Brown played 13 games as a freshman in 2010, but emerged as one of the team’s starting linebackers in 2011. He tied safety Hakeem Smith for second on the team with 84 tackles, while picking up 1.5 sacks and five tackles for a loss. Brown is expected to move from the outside to fill Heyman’s role on the interior, which should allow him to lead the team in tackles and challenge for All-Big East honors in 2012.
Smith has been a journeyman of sorts for Louisville, but he appears to have settled into the defensive end position. He joined Louisville as a quarterback, but moved to linebacker as a freshman. After one season at linebacker, he moved to defensive end before the 2011 and became one of Louisville’s top pass-rushing threats off the edge. Smith appeared in 10 games last season and recorded 5.5 sacks and 6.5 tackles for a loss. Considering the junior doesn’t have a ton of experience at end, he will only get better with more snaps. Expect Smith to lead Louisville in sacks in 2012.
Bushell took an interesting path to get to Louisville, but emerged as one of the top corners in the Big East last season. He spent one year at Florida, before transferring out of Gainesville after spring practice before his sophomore year. Bushell spent 2010 at Cedar Valley Community College and joined Louisville before the 2011 season. In his first season with the Cardinals, Bushell recorded 50 tackles and one interception. He was a key part of Louisville’s upset win over West Virginia, as he blocked a field goal that was returned for a touchdown. Bushell will team with safety Hakeem Smith to form one of the top defensive backfields in the Big East.
Benavides was expected to be one of the top offensive linemen in the Big East last season, but injuries limited his availability early in the year. He enters 2012 as the conference’s top center and his return to full strength should be a huge boost to a Louisville offensive line that struggled at times in 2011. Benavides has started 34 games during his career and with a small senior class, he will be counted upon by the coaching staff to be one of the leaders in 2012.
Smith has been one of Louisville’s top defensive players over the last two seasons and is expected to be a first-team All-Big East safety in 2012. He was the Big East’s Conference Rookie of the Year in 2010 and earned first-team All-Big East honors in 2011. Smith has 25 starts over the last two years and tied for second on the team with 84 stops in 2012. He has recorded just one interception, but has 10 pass breakups and 10 tackles for a loss in his career. Smith is on the radar for NFL scouts and with a big junior season at Louisville, could depart early for the next level.
Bridgewater was thrown into the mix as a true freshman last year and didn’t disappoint. An injury to starter Will Stein allowed Bridgewater to take over the starting duties in Week 4 and he proceeded to throw for 2,129 yards and 14 scores. He also added four rushing scores and completed 64.5 percent of his throws. Considering last season was the first as a collegiate starter, tossing 12 picks wasn’t a surprise. Bridgewater ranked as the No. 6 quarterback in the 2011 recruiting class and should only get better with more snaps in 2012.
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