CRAWFORD | Petrino ready for challenge of leading U of L into AC - WDRB 41 Louisville News

CRAWFORD | Petrino ready for challenge of leading U of L into ACC

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LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) -- Before he hired Bobby Petrino as coach, before Charlie Strong, in fact, had even landed in Austin, Texas, after leaving the University of Louisville, athletic director Tom Jurich said his next coach would be charged with keeping the program's momentum as it heads into the Atlantic Coast Conference.

That's no easy task. Nationally, the general consensus seems to be that U of L will experience some growing pains in its new league. The schedule is tougher. The Cardinals are slated to face as many ranked teams this season (three) as they've faced in the past four regular-seasons combined.

They must do it with a quarterback, Will Gardner, who hasn't started a meaningful game in three years. They must begin the job, most likely, without their most talented offensive player, wideout DeVante Parker, who suffered an undisclosed foot injury in practice 10 days before the team's opener against Miami.

The Cardinals lost three players -- including star quarterback Teddy Bridgewater -- to the first round of the 2014 NFL Draft. They must replace seven starters on a defense ranked No. 1 nationally in total defense, first in the nation against the rush and second only to national champion Florida State in scoring defense. But they return a core of players who were stung by the departure of Strong. The morning after he left, in an impassioned speech to the players in the locker room at Papa John's Cardinal Stadium, Jurich told them that this wouldn't be a program that was about the man wearing the headset, it would be about the ones wearing the helmets.

Into that landscape rides Petrino. He rode out of town in January of 2007 with a bright career ahead of him. He had won 41 out of 50 games in Louisville, taken the Cardinals to their first BCS Bowl win, and left for the NFL. Seven years later, he returns, his career having run off the tracks at Arkansas, where he went 21-5 in his final two season, including 12-4 in the SEC, before being fired after a motorcycle wreck and subsequently revealed extramarital relationship.

There's always pressure to succeed. But at U of L, with the program heading into its first ACC season, and the stakes raised by yet another high-profile coaching departure, Petrino acknowledges the expectation level is high, and that he comes back onto the scene at U of L in a pivotal time in the history of its program.

But he has insisted, on several occasions, there is more pressure on him than on his players.

"It's on me," he said. "It's my job to put them in position to succeed, and to make sure they're not thinking about all this other stuff, but about doing the things we have to do to compete and win."

That could be a bit more complicated without Parker. The wide receiver out of Ballard High School in Louisville is a centerpiece of the offense. He's a security blanket for quarterbacks -- particularly an inexperienced one like Gardner. The last catch he made in the Cardinals' final public scrimmage before its season opener was of an underthrown deep ball. He went up over two defensive backs, wedged himself between them and snatched the ball out of the air.

"You want to get him the ball as much as you possibly can," Petrino said last month. "The good thing about him is, if he's one-on-one, I think he's going to win. That's the confidence I have in him. If they're not going to play him one-on-one, if they roll the coverage or double him or find a way to try to take him away, then that's going to open up both the running game and the matchups on the other side. So he's a very, very good asset to have."

If the pressure was on Petrino before, it's even more on him now. Without Parker, his game-planning becomes more difficult. It's not a stretch to say that much of what Petrino planned offensively began with how opposing defenses chose to deal with Parker. The Cardinals have great depth at wideout, but they don't have another Parker. Kai De La Cruz will step into Parker's lineup slot, along with redshirt senior Matt Milton, who caught only one pass a year ago but has been a key performer in Petrino's offense during preseason camp.

Into Parker's role of prime target, look for the Cards to turn to an experienced hand like Eli Rogers, or Michaelee Harris, both of whom have led the team in receiving. And look for the big-play first option to be sophomore James Quick, a speedster out of Trinity High School who has been fed a steady diet of quick slants in scrimmages so far.

Petrino has always been partial to tight ends, and in Gerald Christian he believes he has a next-level talent.

Petrino also has NFL talent at running back, led by Michael Dyer, former MVP of the national championship game at Auburn, who has been the team's most impressive back in the preseason but who suffered a thigh bruise last week.

Petrino also can turn to Dominique Brown, the team's leading rusher from a year ago, or freshman L.J. Scott, Brandon Radcliff or Corvin Lamb.

The offensive line is anchored by a trio of players with a combined 111 starts -- Jake Smith, Jamon Brown and John Miller. Seniors Chris Acosta and Ryan Mack provide more experience, and junior Tobijah Hughley recently was given a scholarship and looks to be the choice at center. Kelby Johnson also will be in the mix.

"We want to run the ball," Petrino says. "We want to be balanced."

How flashy the offensive attack can be will be up to the progress of Gardner, who was impressive in spring ball but who has had more of an adjustment this fall as the defenses facing him got more complex. Making the right reads, getting the offensive line into the right protections, all will figure into the learning curve. Behind him, freshman and Louisville native Reggie Bonnafon is making fast progress and could see some early series.

"You've really got to study," Gardner said. "It's a complex offense with a lot of concepts you've got to learn. But going through it several times now is kind of like review. The way they do the installs, where they do it, then we do it again a couple of times has really been helpful. . . . Everything's looking good right now. We all feel comfortable."

Petrino parks himself right behind his quarterbacks in scrimmage situations, looking to see if they see the same things he sees and make the same decisions he would make. Having a coach looking over your shoulder, Gardner said, brings a lot of pressure, but it also pays dividends.

"Something might happen and Coach Petrino will say something and at the time you're not really sure what he's talking about, and (offensive coordinator) coach (Garrick) McGee will move on," Gardner said. "But later in the meeting room that play will come up (on video) and you see what he was talking about. But he catches it right away on the field. His attention to detail and his perfection is right on point. It's different. You have to get used to it, but you adjust quickly, because you know you have to, or you're not going to be here."

Defensively, the Cardinals are anchored by their "front seven," in Pitino's terms, though the defense strictly speaking is a new 3-4 scheme installed by coordinator Todd Grantham, who comes to Louisville from Georgia.

Of the five team captains Petrino named in the preseason, two are part of that front seven -- Lorenzo Mauldin and Sheldon Rankins. DeAngelo Brown is a physical presence at nose tackle, and coaches hope he can stay healthy after he missed all of last season. B.J. Dubose and Trevon Young give the Cards more options for rushing ability off the edge, and transfer Pio Vatuvei is a junior college transfer who has made an immediate impact on the line.

"Our No. 1 defensive front can really rush the passer," Petrino said. "I think that's going to be a luxury for us that we're not going to have to just bring blitzes and dogs to get after the quarterback. We should be able to do it with the four-man rush."

Deiontrez Mount, Keith Brown, James Burgess and Lorenzo Mauldin give the team a seasoned linebacking corps.

The secondary has been the question mark. Petrino and Grantham moved Terrell Floyd from cornerback to safety to add depth there. Floyd and Gerrod Holliman have become leaders at the safety spots, with transfer James Sample making a strong push for a starting spot. Charles Gaines, another team captain, locks down one corner spot with senior Andrew Johnson at the other.

The past week or so also has been focused on who would handle kick and punt return duties, as Petrino considered his options there.

Overall, Petrino said, his biggest goal has been to get his players to buy into the change, and the process he's trying to install. He thinks that has happened. The team has new uniforms, will get an all-black look for its home opener against Miami, and a national TV stage for a potential grand entrance. Gardner agreed that players have turned the page.

"Everybody's excited," Gardner said. "Everybody is bought in. We have a lot of confidence in this coaching staff to take us where we want to go."

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