March 23, 2011

Louisville focuses on depth during spring

If there's a silver lining to numerous key players missing spring practice for Louisville, it's that Cardinals coaches will get a good idea at how their depth should be for the 2011 season.

As many as 14 players could miss spring practice with injuries or while recovering from injuries. That's good news for fresh faces looking for opportunities. Louisville is a young team already, with only 12 returning seniors.

Among those likely to miss spring practice include returning starters at receiver, center and defensive end.

Still, second-year coach Charlie Strong has shown he is more than capable of succeeding with the hand he has been dealt. Strong got the most out his senior class last season, which included a career year for running back Bilal Powell. The Cardinals ended their three-year bowl drought by going 7-6 and defeating Southern Miss in the Beef 'O'Brady's Bowl.

Despite going 3-4 in the Big East, Louisville's fourth consecutive season with a losing conference record, the Cardinals rarely were overmatched. Five of their six losses were by fewer than eight points.

Here's a look at Louisville as the Cardinals enter spring practice.

LOUISVILLE AT-A-GLANCE
Charlie Strong's team enters spring with a lot of players sidelined by injury.
THE BASICS
Coach: Charlie Strong
Last season: 7-6 overall, 3-4 in the Big East. Beat Southern Miss 31-28 in the Beef 'O' Brady's Bowl
Spring dates: March 23-April 15
RETURNING STARTERS
(minimum seven starts last season)
Offense (4): WR Josh Bellamy, C Mario Benavides, TE Josh Chichester, WR Andrell Smith. Defense (6): E B.J. Butler, LB Dexter Heyman, FS Shenard Holton, T Greg Scruggs, SS Hakeem Smith. Special teams (1): K Chris Philpott.
POSITIONS OF STRENGTH: Louisville loses four starters on the offensive line, but the unit does benefit from having an anchor at center. Junior Mario Benavides should be one of the best in the league at his position, but he is likely to miss spring with a shoulder injury. Despite losing top receiver Doug Beaumont and TE Cameron Graham, there is experience at receiver. WRs Josh Bellamy and Andrell Smith are upperclassmen, as is TE Josh Chichester. The unit is looking for a go-to receiver, which could be redshirt freshman Michaelee Harris, who would have played last season if not for a knee injury. But he's on the injury list for the spring and will have to wait until the summer to make his mark. SS Hakeem Smith returns after leading the team in tackles (88). He was a Rivals.com freshman All-America selection. FS Shenard Holton and Terence Simien, the projected starter ahead of Smith before his season was derailed by injury, also return. Daniel Brown, one of two returning starters at linebacker, finished last season with 10 tackles for loss. Three defensive ends with starting experience - B.J. Butler, Greg Scruggs and William Savoy - are back, though Butler and Scruggs will miss spring with injuries. Scruggs started five games at tackle last season and two at end, where he is listed as a starter.

HELP IS NEEDED: Bilal Powell was the team MVP and the only major threat on offense. The Cardinals' first priority is to replace that production. They will have an open audition in the spring as sophomore Jeremy Wright, the heir apparent, is out with a knee injury. Senior Victor Anderson has been productive in the past, but he hasn't been able to stay healthy. After Wright and Anderson, no Cardinals back had more than three carries last season. Louisville had two starting quarterbacks last season (Adam Froman and Justin Burke), but neither return. Former walk-on Will Stein, a 5-foot-10 junior, begins camp as the starter, but he will need to hold off sophomore Dominique Brown and true freshman Teddy Bridgewater. Stein split his two starts in 2009, defeating Arkansas State and losing to West Virginia. Johnny Patrick had been a mainstay at cornerback and will be missed. Fellow starting CB Bobby Burns is also gone. Seniors Anthony Conner, who missed last season with an ACL tear, and Preston Pace will get first crack at the jobs.

3 GUYS TO WATCH

QB Teddy Bridgewater: Landing the four-star quarterback out of Miami Northwestern was a coup for Louisville. He followed Jacory Harris at Northwestern and had committed to Miami before changing his mind and enrolling early at Louisville. He's a natural leader, but is going to have a learning curve under new quarterback coach Shawn Watson. Stein has starting experience, and Brown was used in some packages as a runner and receiver last season. Bridgewater is short on experience, but expect him to get a long look.

WR Charles Gaines: Gaines is another early enrollee out of Miami, though he is from Miami Central, which won the state title. With numerous receivers out for spring, Gaines could have a chance to impress. He's a smaller, speedy receiver who could be an effective complement to Louisville's possession receivers.

LB Deon Rogers: Rogers, another Floridian, played primarily on special teams and sparingly at linebacker as a freshman last season. He could claim the starting weakside linebacker spot alongside two returning starters.

THE PRESSURE IS ON

CB Preston Pace: Cornerback is a position of dire need, as the seniors - including Pace - who open spring as first-stringers have major injury histories. Pace was a projected starter in 2009 season, but he missed most of the season with a shoulder injury. He missed 2010 as well. Pace has the ability to be a solid cornerback, but he must stay healthy. He has to have a good spring to be counted upon.

THE BUZZ

After two losing seasons and two Big East victories in two years, Louisville showed renewed confidence last season, Strong's first. A successful follow-up could be a challenge. This is a young team, with only 22 upperclassmen. If there is any good news to come out of the rash of spring injuries, it's that Louisville's youth will have more practice opportunities. Progress is vital at quarterback.

David Fox is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at dfox@rivals.com.



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