LOUISVILLE, KY. (WDRB) -- Along with the usual preseason work the University of Louisville football team will be doing once camp opens next month, there will be training within the training.
You could just call it the Cardinal Football Leadership Academy.
Every time coach Charlie Strong or one of his assistants has talked about the team over the past several months, the word "leadership" has been front and center.
Strong, before the spring game in April: "Leadership is going to be an issue. Where is it going to come from?"
Associate head coach and defensive coordinator Vance Bedford, to The Courier-Journal two weeks ago: "You can't win and nobody is leading . . . My concern is I don't know where the leadership is coming from with such a young football team. We don't have that right now."
Here's the math of it. U of L surveyed its fellow NCAA Football Bowl Subdivision members as to seniority, and found that only five teams in the nation have fewer scholarship seniors than U of L's 10. Indiana, with only seven, has the fewest in FBS, followed by Marshall, Rice and Colorado with eight each and Wisconsin with nine.
Without that core of senior leadership, coaches have to concern themselves not only with building physiques and minds for the game, but more than in most seasons, building leaders.
Their first step was identifying some potential leadership. That happened in the spring in an interesting way. Most coach-player interaction in college football is one-to-one. Occasionally as a player you'll interact with a small group of coaches, maybe the offensive or defensive coaches all at one time.
Now imagine this. The coach gives you a call to come into the meeting room. You walk in, and not just your position coach, or the head coach, is there waiting for you, but the entire coaching staff seated around a meeting table. You walk in, and they tell you they've called you in because they believe you have the makings of a leader for the football team.
"We actually this past spring brought guys in and talked to them as a staff," Cardinals running backs coach Kenny Carter said on Tuesday at a Cardinal Caravan stop. " We brought guys in we felt had potential to be leaders, and we basically addressed the things we felt like were strengths and weaknesses, so that they could understand where we stood with them, and give them a chance to voice where they thought they were. And because of that whole experiment, we feel like it's really facilitated a great opportunity for some guys to be great leaders for us."
But Carter, like Bedford and the rest of the coaches, will tell you that you can't build leaders in the meeting room. That's why what happens in the coming weeks before the season will do more than anything to determine this team's early-season leadership, or lack of it.
"The biggest thing you have to do is you have to let them play," Carter said. "Because if they can't perform on the field, the leadership is not going to matter. But the lab that you have for them every day is the competition. The more they compete, the more the leadership naturally comes out."
After spring practice, Strong said he knew he could expect leadership from Will Stein and Alex Kupper on offense, and from Adrian Bushell and Daniel Brown in the defensive backfield. But those four are seniors. Coaches are more honed in on identifying younger players who might make the step in maturity toward leadership. Carter said Tuesday, without identifying individuals, he thinks that has a chance to happen.
"Our young guys are the ones who have been some of the best leaders," he said.
One encouraging sign for U of L is the increasing load freshmen and sophomores were carrying statistically as the season progressed last season. An offensive stat: Freshmen and sophomores accounted for 37 percent of the team's yardage in last season's opener against Murray State. By the regular-season finale against South Florida, they accounted for 73. The defensive progression was similar.
On offense, Mario Benavides has the experience and grasp of the team's system to be a natural at leadership, particularly at the center position, which requires a great deal of leadership anyway. And anyone who has been around sophomore quarterback Teddy Bridgewater knows that he is settling into the role of a leader, but in a kind of comfortable, self-confident way that does not seem forced.
Defensively, the field might be more open. Maybe Brandon Dunn up front, or Roy Philon, could become a vocal presence in the huddle. But that's a leadership situation that's more likely to be settled in the trenches when the pads go on.
Regardless, get ready to hear more about this issue. Strong knows that a couple of losses last season can be pinned on leadership, and he wants to see the program move past that kind of problem -- even if it doesn't yet have the senior numbers to do it naturally. QUICK HITS: Carter, talking about his corps of running backs, said, "I think this is as talented as any backfield I've had, and I've had some really good ones. They can do a little bit of everything, but the best thing about them is that they're interchangeable. Shawn (Watson) doesn't have to alter his play-calls depending on who's in the game. They can all pass-protect, they all run well after contact, they all catch the ball well." . . . Asked if he had a "home-run hitter" in the backfield with big-play ability, Carter said, "I think they all are. I really do. They know the little things they need to work on that I feel like are weaknesses of theirs, and that's all we really focus on because their strengths, they know what they are and they always lean toward those. But they all can be home-run hitters." . . . Carter said the one requirement of any U of L running back to get onto the field: "If you can't block, you can't pass protect, you can't play. Period. Some people will give a back an opportunity to just be a runner or a pass-catcher. We don't separate that in our scheme. So if you can't do it all, you can't play."
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