Louisville’s first season in the ACC was a successful one. The Cardinals finished 9-4, with two of their losses coming by six points or less. 2014 also brought the return of Bobby Petrino to the Louisville sidelines, and despite a revolving door at quarterback and a struggling offensive line, the Cardinals still averaged 31.2 points per game. Petrino and his staff will be busy this spring, as Louisville returns only seven starters and five All-ACC performers are gone from last year’s 9-4 squad.
5 Storylines to Watch in Louisville’s Spring Practice
1. The Quarterback Battle
Three quarterbacks started a game for Louisville last season, and there’s no shortage of uncertainty here as spring practice begins. Kyle Bolin, Reggie Bonnafon and Penn State transfer Tyler Ferguson will get the first opportunity to claim the job this offseason, as Will Gardner is recovering from a knee injury suffered in early October. Will a clear leader emerge this spring? Or will the battle continue into fall when Gardner is healthy?
2. Reloading at Receiver
There’s no doubt Louisville is going to miss DeVante Parker’s production at receiver in 2014. Parker played in only six games last season but ranked among the best in the ACC after catching 43 passes for 855 yards and five scores. Not only must the Cardinals find a replacement for Parker, the receiving corps also loses Eli Rogers (45 catches in 2014), Kai De La Cruz (26) and tight end Gerald Christian (32). James Quick (36 catches) should see a bigger role in 2015, but transfers Ja’Quay Williams (Texas A&M) and Jamari Staples (UAB) are two names to watch. Junior college recruit Paul Harris is also expected to push for time this offseason.
3. Finding Answers on the Offensive Line
Even though Louisville has a quarterback battle and loses some of its top skill players, the biggest concern for the offense has to be in the trenches. This unit loses three starters, including left tackle Jamon Brown (second-team All-ACC) and both starting guards (John Miller and Jake Smith). Center Tobijah Hughley (11 starts) and right tackle Aaron Epps (six starts) are the only returning starters from 2014. How quickly will the Cardinals restock the trenches?
4. Revamped Secondary
The Cardinals were one of the nation’s stingiest defensive backfields in 2014. In 13 contests, Louisville’s secondary limited opposing quarterbacks to just 14 passing scores and a 53.9 completion percentage. That’s the good news. The bad news? All four starters are gone. Georgia transfers Shaq Wiggins (CB) and Josh Harvey-Clemons (S) are expected to claim two of the starting spots, while safety Chucky Williams (six tackles in 2014) and redshirt freshman cornerback Cornelius Sturghill enter spring with an early edge. Wiggins and Harvey-Clemons have instant-impact talent, and the Cardinals should have a good pass rush to help alleviate some of the concerns about coverage. How quickly can coordinator Todd Grantham get this group performing at a high level?
5. Restocking the Defensive Front
The strength of the defense should be the line and the linebacking corps, but Grantham has a few holes to fill this spring. End B.J. Dubose and linebackers Lorenzo Mauldin and Deiontrez Mount have expired their eligibility after all three players turned in productive 2014 campaigns. Sheldon Rankins, DeAngelo Brown and Pio Vatuvei are penciled in as the starters on the line, while James Burgess, Keith Kelsey and Keith Brown are listed at linebacker. Will Grantham find a few players behind the starters to build depth in the front seven?
Pre-Spring Outlook on Louisville in the ACC:
Florida State and Clemson are considered the favorites in the Atlantic Division, while Louisville and NC State are the two teams fighting for the No. 3 and No. 4 spots in 2015. Although it’s possible the Seminoles or Tigers regress more than anticipated, the Cardinals also have their share of personnel concerns to address before moving up in the Atlantic. Will a quarterback claim the starting job? And how quickly will the offensive line jell? The secondary is the biggest concern on defense, but this unit could quickly settle if Josh Harvey-Clemons and Shaq Wiggins emerge as key contributors. The September slate features games against Auburn and Clemson, and a road trip to Florida State awaits in October. Considering the heavy personnel losses, a realistic goal for Petrino’s second year should be 8-4 or 9-3.