C-USA Football Preview: Louisville

Lionel Gates

As the Cardinals prepare for their second season in head coach Bobby Petrino's offensive system, the scary thing is that the Cardinals could even be more potent, as nine starters and 19 letterwinners return on the offensive side of the football.

Heading into last season, there were plenty of question marks surrounding the University of Louisville offense as three-time Conference USA Player of the Year Dave Ragone had graduated, leaving the reins to an untested Stefan LeFors.

What transpired was one of the best offensive seasons in the history of the school. Behind the left arm of LeFors and a potent rushing attack, the Cardinals set the school and conference record for total offense (6,355) and finished fifth nationally with an average of 488.0 yards per game.

As the Cardinals prepare for their second season in head coach Bobby Petrino's offensive system, the scary thing is that the Cardinals could even be more potent, as nine starters and 19 letterwinners return on the offensive side of the football.

QUARTERBACKS
The Cardinals have always been known to have one solid quarterback in the mix. For the first time in recent memory, the Cardinals will have two outstanding signal-callers, which bodes well for the future of the entire Cardinal football program.

LeFors was an All-C-USA first team selection, his first as a starter, throwing for 3,145 yards and 17 touchdowns. His 3,145 passing yards was the third best in school history, while his touchdowns were tied for ninth.

The 6-0 left-hander rose from obscurity to become the focal point of the Cardinal attack. The native of Baton Rouge, La., led the league in total offense (273.1 ypg) and was second in passing efficiency (145.46).

More importantly, LeFors completed 61.3 percent of his throws and tossed just 10 interceptions. Teamed with standout senior wide receiver J.R. Russell, LeFors helps form one of the most dynamic quarterback-receiver combinations in the country.

LeFors also showed an ability to use his legs to get out of trouble, setting the school record for rushing yards for a quarterback, running for 405 yards and three scores.


Brian Brohm
LeFors will have competition this fall when freshman Brian Brohm, the most heralded recruit in U of L history, comes to campus. Brohm, who guided local Trinity High School to three state titles, was named USA Today National Offensive Player of the Year. In four years with the Shamrocks, Brohm threw for 10,579 yards and 119 touchdowns and was rated the No. 2 high school player in the nation by Tom Lemming. Brohm was a three-time state finalist Most Valuable Player and was named one of the nation's top quarterbacks in June.

RUNNING BACKS
This group will definitely be one of the strengths of the 2004 squad and should be one of the positions of interest as the summer season unfolds.

The Cardinals return their top three rushers who helped set the school mark for the most rushing yards in a season (2,966). After finishing near the bottom in the nation in rushing in 2002, the Cardinals placed 10th in the country with an average of 228.2 yards a game. The trio of senior Lionel Gates, junior Eric Shelton and sophomore Michael Bush combined to run for 2,110 yards and 27 touchdowns.

Gates, a big, powerful runner with breakaway speed, headlines a talented group of backs. Gates led the Cardinals in rushing with 817 yards and 11 touchdowns, and averaged 5.8 yards a carry. In a possible preview of things to come, Gates capped the 2003 season with an 88-yard touchdown run and 128 yards in the bowl loss to Miami, and also rushed for a career-best 140 yards and four touchdowns in a 66-45 win over Houston.

Shelton, in his first season with the Cardinals after transferring from Florida State, was the power back for the Cardinals. Despite missing three games with a neck injury, the 6-3, 248-pounder still managed 790 yards and 10 scores. The native of Lexington, Ky., recorded four 100-yard games, including a 151-yard performance in the season opener at Kentucky.


Michael Bush
The wild card in the backfield is Bush, who lined up at quarterback, wide receiver and running back last season. Used mainly as a running back late in the season, the versatile Bush, who missed the entire spring with an injury, managed to run for 503 yards, six touchdowns and averaged 6.2 yards a tote. Out of the backfield, the former Mr. Kentucky Football caught 17 passes for 240 yards and a touchdown.

With a mixture of power and outstanding speed, Bush is one of the top athletes on the team. He showcased some of that ability last season, running for 137 yards against Houston and 125 versus Cincinnati, including an 81-yard burst for a score against the Bearcats.

Sophomore Kolby Smith is another talented player who Petrino must find time for in a crowded backfield. Playing at the fullback position last season, Smith ran for 131 yards and a touchdown and averaged 7.3 yards a carry. He had surgery in the off-season and missed spring drills. Smith is healthy and could be a factor at the tailback position.

Red-shirt freshman Reggie Bradshaw didn't see game action last season, but is a hard-runner with sprinter's speed. He had an outstanding spring and showed the coaching staff that he has the skills to fit in well with the Cardinal offense.

D.J. Kamer and Smith split time at fullback last season, but Kamer has graduated and Smith will likely play more running back. Senior Adam McCauley was moved to fullback last season and received many reps in the spring. Freshman Drew Steinmetz from Trinity Christian Academy in Jacksonville, Fla, is a talented player who will get a chance to play right away. Sophomore Derionte Taylor was moved to the fullback position in the middle of spring drills, but could move back to defense this fall.

WIDE RECEIVERS
The Cardinals are blessed at wide receiver with some of the best talent in the country. Fortunate to have everyone back from last season, the Cardinals add the likes of a major college transfer and a top-flight red-shirt freshman to a stable of outstanding pass catchers.

The Cardinals have so much talent and depth at this position that the only problem facing the coaching staff is figuring out how to get so many talented athletes on the field at once.

Russell, an All-America candidate, returns after posting one of the top seasons in school history. The 6-3 senior recorded 75 catches for a school-best 1,213 yards and eight touchdowns, closing the season with three straight 100-yard games. He ended the 2003 campaign with a seven-catch,144-yard and three touchdown performance against Miami in the bowl game. Russell enters his final campaign with 113 catches for 1,651 yards and 12 touchdowns in his remarkable career.

Junior Joshua Tinch is another talented receiver, who had a great spring. In the Red-White game, Tinch proved his mettle by catching six passes for 138 yards and two touchdowns and was impressive in two other scrimmages. One of the fiercest competitors on the team and never afraid to make the tough catch over the middle, Tinch caught 26 passes for 401 yards and a score in 2003.

Junior Broderick Clark proved what he could do when he was healthy.

Coming off an injury-plagued 2003 season, Clark was back at full speed in the spring and gives the Cardinals another deep threat to team with Russell and Tinch. Nagged by a high hamstring injury last year, Clark caught 23 passes for 313 yards, but seemed to be slowed late in the year due to the injury. Clark, one of the top kick returners in the conference, hopes to regain his freshman form that saw him rank in the top five nationally in kickoff returns.

Petrino found a way last season to utilize junior Robert Haskins into the offense, and the 5-6 wideout didn't disappoint. Arguably one of the fastest players on the team, Haskins made big plays, catching eight passes for 115 yards, but also rushed seven times for 93 yards, including a 64-yard touchdown run on a reverse against Houston. Senior Tiger Jones is a possession-type receiver who has plenty of game experience and has shown through the years that he's capable of making plays.

The Cardinals red-shirted a talented group of wideouts in junior Montrell Jones and red-shirt freshman Harry Douglas. Jones transferred last year from Tennessee and worked with the scout team. The coaching staff is excited about getting Jones out on the field with the first unit and getting him involved in the offense.

As a freshman with the Volunteers, Jones caught 22 passes for 306 yards in 2002, and is an explosive, big-play receiver.

Douglas possesses sprinter-type speed and owns great hands. He had a solid red-shirt season, and is ready to fight for playing time. Freshman Mario Urrutia was one of the top recruits in the state of Kentucky. At 6-6, Urrutia caught 65 passes for 1,159 yards and 13 touchdowns as a senior and was first team All-State.

The big loss for the Cardinals comes at tight end where four-time All-C-USA performer Ronnie Ghent and Richard Owens have graduated, leaving the Cardinals with one tight end with game experience in sophomore Wayne Riles. Used mainly in a blocking role and in certain short-yardage situations, Riles must be a factor in the Cardinals precision passing game. A pair of talented freshmen will be forced into the mix in Scott Kuhn and Gary Barnidge. Kuhn, at 6-5, 235, was a three-year letterwinner at Conner High School and caught 20 passes for 200 yards and three touchdowns as senior. Barnidge, who hails from Middleburg High School in Fla., is 6-6 and is another big target in the Cardinal offense.

OFFENSIVE LINEMEN
The biggest question mark and problem area for the Cardinals heading into the 2003 season was the offensive line. However, ask the coaching staff what the biggest surprise was, and they would say the offensive front.

After yielding 46 sacks in 2002, the Cardinals front five allowed just 13. This group also helped the Cardinals set the school mark for rushing yards in a season and average yards per carry (5.7).

The Cardinals lost two starters in the trenches in center Dan Koons and guard Jerry Spencer, and will have to make some changes this fall. However, the good news is the Cardinals can build on two All-Conference performers. Junior weak tackle Travis Leffew and junior Jason Spitz each earned second team All-C-USA honors and are two of the most talented linemen in the league. Leffew has made 26 straight starts and is one of the most athletic linemen on the squad. Spitz has started 14 straight at weak guard and is one of the toughest and most skilled players upfront.

The other returning starter is also a solid player in sophomore Renardo Foster. At 6-5, Foster is a mammoth specimen who made a successful transition to the offensive side of the football to start 13 games at tackle. A former defensive tackle, Foster was named to the All-C-USA Freshman squad.

Junior Kurt Quarterman, who weighs in at over 350 pounds, will take over at strong guard and junior Bubba Marshall will also compete there for playing time. Junior-college transfer Jeremy Darveau is another 300-pounder who'll get time at tackle, but could fill other positions if needed.

Former offensive guard Will Rabatin moved to the center position in the spring after spending most of his career at guard. Rabatin is a technically-sound lineman and will compete with sophomore P.J. Tavarczky for the starting nod this fall. Red-shirt freshman Danny Barlowe is a hard worker and will likely backup Spitz at the weak guard.

The Louisville defense returns eight starters and 23 letterwinners to a unit that needs to improve if the Cardinals have aspirations of a Conference USA title. Louisville allowed an average of 428.0 yards per game and 27.8 points, but yielded an average of 44.7 points per contest in the final three games of the year. This unit is a year older and a year stronger and is expected to rebound from a disappointing second half of the season.

Under the direction of new defensive coordinator Mike Cassity, the Cardinals improved their technique and showed they improved their team speed. This unit will be improved and could be the key to the team's success this fall.

DEFENSIVE LINE
The defensive line lost just one player on the line in defensive tackle Scott Lopez and have a great deal of talent and potential upfront, and could be a much improved unit.

Heading this group is senior defensive end Marcus Jones, one of the top pass rushers in Conference USA. Jones, a second team All-Conference honoree, led the team in sacks with 10 and had 17 tackles for loss.

Jones is a high-energy player who provides relentless pressure on opposing quarterbacks. Jones was fifth on the team in tackles with 62 and could be in for a big season in Cassity's scheme. Junior Elvis Dumervil is an athletic defensive end who is coming off a 28-tackle season and could be even better as he enters the fall. He also added six tackles for loss and two sacks. Chad Rimpsey played in a reserve role in 2003, but is expected to be a consistent performer along the line this year. Playing in 12 games, Rimpsey registered 23 tackles and two tackles for loss. Red-shirt freshman Shane Bailey showed promise in the spring and will likely be the starter at one of the defensive end positions.

Senior Bobby Leffew missed spring practice and will be a huge addition to the line if he can stay healthy. Leffew stayed healthy most of the season and recorded 37 tackles and seven tackles for loss. Converted tight end Chad Jorgensen is a quick rusher off the edge and used the spring to continue his development.

Junior Montavious Stanley, who started the year at defensive end, was moved to defensive tackle in the bowl game and worked there all spring. The 6-2, 302-pounder might be more efficient inside with his size and speed. Playing outside last season, Stanley recorded 37 tackles, including 13 behind the line of scrimmage.

Sophomore Amobi Okoye was the youngest player in football last season, will be a player to watch this fall. Having had a full season and a winter workout session, the 6-1, 317-pounder could be a player to look out for after a year of maturity. Playing in 13 games, Okoye tallied 17 tackles playing limited time.

Freshmen Brandon Cox from Douglass High School in Atlanta, Ga., Adrian Grady from Coffee High School in Nichols, Ga., and Devin Shivers from George Walton High School in Monroe, Ga., will be counted on to add depth along the defensive front.

LINEBACKERS
If Louisville is going to improve this year on defense, the Cardinals need the linebackers to step up and have a big season. This unit lost one senior starter in Rod Day, but returns two other starters in senior Robert McCune in the middle and junior Brandon Johnson at outside linebacker.

McCune, a third team All-C-USA selection, posted a career-high 143 tackles in 13 games. He posted eight games of 10 or more tackles, including 19 in an overtime loss to USF. McCune is one of the strongest and fastest players on the squad, and will need to have another big year for the Cardinals.

Johnson is a lanky backer who was used a lot as an outside rusher a year ago. He recorded 50 tackles, but was also third on the team in sacks with three.

The weakside linebacker spot will be wide open with a pair of youngsters competing for time this spring. The coaches are extremely high on converted quarterback and red-shirt freshman Preston Smith. Recruited to play quarterback, Smith was moved to linebacker mid-way through the season and could be one of the starters.

Sophomore Abe Brown moved to outside linebacker in the spring and gave the coaching staff a glimpse of his abilities. Brown has bulked up and will be a huge factor on the defensive side of the ball. At 6-4, Brown gives the Cardinals a big and athletic body on defense, which could only help this unit. Red-shirt freshman Malik Jackson, who played safety last season, is a hard-hitting strong player who the coaching staff expects big things from in 2004. Jackson showed on the scout team last season that he'll deliver a big hit on anyone, and is expected to be a factor this fall for playing time.

Senior Jonathan Jackerson and red-shirt freshman Matt Sanders worked well in the spring and will add depth to the linebacker position. Jackerson played at linebacker at times, but was a big factor on special teams. He recovered a blocked punt in the end zone for a touchdown in the Cardinals' 40-24 win over Kentucky.

Freshmen Maurice Mitchell from Glasgow High School in Glasgow, Ky., Johnnie Burn from Fletcher High School in Neptune Beach, Fla, and Lamar Myles from Winterhaven, Fla., could step right in and make this unit even stronger.

SECONDARY
Louisville boasts a solid nucleus in the secondary with three starters returning to the lineup.

Senior Antoine Harris, who converted from wide receiver last season, emerged early in the season and played well in his first go round on defense. Boasting excellent speed, Harris posted 51 tackles, had six pass breakups and tied for the team lead in interceptions with three.

Still learning the position, Harris will benefit from having a full spring and could be ready to emerge at this spot when fall camp begins.

Sophomore William Gay received a lot of experience last season and has the potential to be a dominant corner for the Cards over the next three seasons. The native of Tallahassee, Fla., played in 11 games, including four as a starter, recording 33 tackles and one interception. Transfer Antoine Sharp, who worked out at wide receiver last year, will make the switch to corner this spring. An excellent athlete with good speed, Sharp could throw his name in the mix and add depth to this unit with a good spring. Sophomore Gavin Smart opened the season as a starter, but played mainly in nickel situations after suffering a shoulder injury that cost him his starting position. Playing in nine games, Smart recorded 17 tackles, but helped the Cardinals open the season on a positive note by returning an interception 41 yards to set up a Cardinal touchdown in a 40-24 win over Kentucky. Smart missed spring practice due to injury, but should be back at full strength this fall. Senior J.T. Haskins is a valuable special teams player, but also filled in on nickel and dime situations a year ago. Red-shirt freshman Early McCray is also someone to keep an eye on this spring. A talented youngster from Douglas, Ga., McCray is an intriguing prospect and has the potential to step right in and be a very solid cover cornerback. Senior Domonique Dunbar is an experienced player and could fill in in certain nickel and dime situations.

Safety was a big question mark for the Cardinals heading into the 2003 season with youth and experience fogging up the picture. In 2004, this group looks to be pretty solid with both starters returning and a key player returning from an injury.

Senior Brent Johnson emerged last season, leading the club in tackles with a career-best 116 stops. A hard hitter, Johnson closed the year in impressive fashion, averaging 14 tackles in the last four games, including 14 in the loss to Miami. Johnson was also third on the team with eight tackles for loss and also added four pass breakups. Red-shirt freshman Jonathan Russell showed good speed and toughness at strong safety and can add much-needed depth this fall.

Senior Kerry Rhodes posted a career-high 82 tackles in his first season as a starter. Rhodes recorded three interceptions, returning one for a touchdown. Rhodes, at 6-3, is a big target in the secondary and had a solid year.

Junior Jon Gannon is another talented player, who is trying to rebound from injuries. Gannon sat out all of last year and went through spring drills, but had little contact. If healthy, Gannon's toughness and knowledge of the game will be a welcome addition in the secondary.

SPECIAL TEAMS
The Cardinals will have to replace one of the school's and conference's top placekickers with the graduation of Nate Smith. Spring practice was an open competition for the kicking job, and the Cardinals feel much better about this position after spring drills.

Arthur Carmody is an untested youngster who red-shirted last season, but has plenty of potential. Carmody is an All-State performer who is one of the team's most accurate kickers, and used the spring to garner much-needed experience. Carmody showed accuracy and a surprisingly strong leg in the spring. He consistently hit from 40 yards and was precise from over 50 yards.

Todd Flannery is another player with potential, and received some valuable practice time in the spring. Flannery is valuable because he can kickoff, kick field goals and handle the punting chores. Rob Zarrilli is also in the mix, which will create a competitive battle this fall. Zarrilli is the front-runner to handle the kickoff duties. Sophomore Brent Moody will resume his duties at punter after a solid first season. Kicking in 12 games, Moody averaged 39.5 yards a punt and placed 12 inside the 20-yard line. Flannery will also compete at punter this fall.

Clark will continue his role at kick returner. Slowed by injuries last season, Clark's numbers dipped to 19.5 yards a return after finishing second in the nation in that category in 2002.

Douglas, Montrell Jones, Bush, Bradshaw, Gates and Antoine Sharp will each get a look returning kicks this spring.

Robert Haskins took over the punt return duties and did a solid job, averaging 7.7 yards a return. Petrino and his staff will also look at Montrell Jones, Gay, Harris and Douglas this fall as punt returners.

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