CRAWFORD | With high expectations, Louisville football hoping to - WDRB 41 Louisville News

CRAWFORD | With high expectations, Louisville football hoping to 'cut it loose'

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Associated Press photo. Associated Press photo.

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) -- It’s a little like waking up on Christmas morning to find snow on the ground. Overnight, on the eve of the first college football games of the season, we woke up to just a small taste of football weather with a 20-degree change in temperature.

In what is becoming a rarity for the University of Louisville football program, the Cardinals will not begin this season in the frying pan. After openers against Miami and Auburn the past two seasons, and with openers against Alabama and Notre Dame scheduled for the next two, Louisville is a 39.5-point favorite against the Charlotte team that will visit Papa John’s Cardinal Stadium at 7 Thursday night.

And they open with expectations as high as they’ve been since Charlie Strong returned a veteran group and went 12-1 in 2013.

Officially, the No. 19-ranked Cardinals are picked to finish third in the Atlantic Division of the Atlantic Coast Conference, behind Top 5 programs Clemson and Florida State. Unofficially, Louisville coaches, players, and especially fans, harbor the secret hope that this team can do better than that.

Read Louisville coach Bobby Petrino at your own risk. I’m not sure what kind of poker player he is, but in football, in all the years I’ve covered him, he generally plays his cards close to the vest.

It’s for that reason that his public stance in the preseason has been notable. From before camp began, Petrino has talked with the quiet confidence of a man holding a royal flush, or a handful of aces.

He went to ACC Media Days and talked unabashedly about having the program goal of a national championship, and he wanted his players to be bold enough to say it.

He’s never been shy about cooling down any media inquiry with a tepid response. In general, you ask him a football question, you’re going to get a straight football answer.

But this year, Petrino has had little negative to say about his team. And the media and public have picked up on it.

Maybe it’s because he has more offensive pieces to work with. In his first two seasons back in Louisville, Petrino has had to put together patchwork offenses, usually on the fly. He lost wideout Devante Parker, the centerpiece of his offense, just before the season started, two years ago, and last season was continually having to reshuffle his quarterbacks.

This year, they have found The Man, and Petrino has spent all summer getting him ready for that role. With 412 rushing yards in the last two games of his freshman season, quarterback Lamar Jackson set himself up for offseason hype, and Petrino has spent all spring and preseason camp setting up Jackson as a more polished passer.

“I’d like to see him pass for 3,000 yards,” Petrino said recently.

“He worked extremely hard in really studying the offensive schemes and being able to picture the plays in his mind as you gave them to him, either by signals or verbally, which a quarterback has to do,” Petrino said. “He's got to immediately put a picture in his mind of the formation and the play, and then be able to see what the defense is going to be. He's really done a nice job of that. He's worked extremely hard with his footwork and his consistency to be able to get his body in position so he can be more accurate throwing the ball. I've been really impressed with the young man, his dedication and his eagerness to be coached and want to be coached. It's something that you don't see in every kid nowadays. I'm excited to see him go out and have a great game.”

Petrino said he’s also been impressed with the way it has approached spring and summer workouts. He prefers to have a big game in the opener to get his team’s attention. But with a road conference game in Week 2, plus games against Clemson and Florida State, and a trip to Marshall, in the following weeks, his players have been plenty dialed in.

“One of the things we've always talked about around here is the issue is us, how we go about our business in the meeting room, how we go about our business on the practice field, and we're really excited for the game,” Petrino said. “I think it'll be a great opener.”

Louisville’s fanbase has been itching for a return of “Petrino offense.” This is expected to be the year they get that. Petrino said he wants to see his offense “cut it loose” now that he has a more experienced group that is familiar with his system.

Brandon Radcliff, L.J. Scott and Jeremy Smith are all returnees at running back. Former QB Reggie Bonnafon has been working out all offseason at receiver. James Quick and Jamari Staples return at wideout, as do a trio of talented sophomores, Devonte Peete, Traveon Samuel and Jaylen Smith.

Defensively, the Cards also are deep and talented. Their linebacking corps of Stacy Thomas, Keith Kelsey, James Hearns and Devonte Fields is as good as you’ll find anywhere. In the second half of last season, he was one of the nation’s top defensive players, with 18 tackles for loss in the final seven games, and eight sacks in the last four.

The secondary also features NFL talent, with Jaire Alexander and Trumaine Washington at cornerback, with Shaq Wiggins rotating in, and Chucky Williams and Josh Harvey-Clemons at safety.

Louisville’s defense, which in many ways has led the way in the Cardinals’ past two seasons, stands to gain if the Cardinal offense is more potent. If the Cards can put opponents into situations where they’re forced to pass more often earlier in games, the defense has an opportunity to be more aggressive in pressure, which in turn can lead to turnovers.

“We want to feed the offense,” Grantham says. “You know we always tell our guys the offense is talented, so our mindset is we just got to keep feeding them the ball.”

If there’s a question mark with the team, it’s on special teams, where the kicker and punter are untested. But Petrino doesn’t seem worried.

And his preseason mindset has led to a great many expectations.

“We embrace that,” he said. “You have to be willing to state your goals to go out and meet them. And we have very high goals.”

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