By Eric Crawford, WDRB Sports
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LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) – While the rest of the city (and most of the country) was still reacting to the controversy stirred by a racial slur used by John Schnatter, one that resulted in the renaming of Cardinal Stadium, the University of Louisville football players had another concern.

They were worried about slogging through the sand in various speed and leaping drills run by head strength and conditioning coach Joe Miday.

After an hour or more of weight training in an improvised weight room set up in the Trager Center indoor practice facility (the Cardinals’ new 20,000-square-foot weight room should open next month), the Cards trotted outside into a sweltering day to encounter the heat of a sand pit. Many kicked off their shoes to run the sprints in sock feet.

“You know, the sand makes it a lot harder,” wide receiver Jaylen Smith said. “Instead of running on a flat surface, you’ve really got to dig in and push off and get out. So it helps with speed and endurance in the legs. It’s not so much conditioning for the wind, but for the strength in the legs.”

Miday has been utilizing these kinds of summer workouts since he took over four years ago. They give the players a little variety, and help instill toughness as well as endurance.

“We should get the media out here every day,” he said as Louisville players blazed through a spirited set of sand drills.

Maybe the cameras inspired them. Or maybe it is the defending national champions lurking in the opening game. Or maybe it is the collection of preseason publications picking them to finish close to the bottom of the ACC Atlantic Division. Maybe it’s all of the above.

Smith said he doesn’t pay attention to the preseason predictions.

“I don’t look at it. I seem to get a lot of tagged messages and stuff like that,” he said. “I think the fans get a lot more offended than I do, when they say receivers are ranked higher than I am or teams. I just let the chips fall and do my thing.”

Smith and the entire offense have played in the shadow of Lamar Jackson for the past couple of seasons. With him gone, many aren’t sure what to expect. He understands that, but also knows well what returns offensively.

“Lamar is a once in a lifetime talent, we know that,” Smith said. “But Puma (Jawon Pass) is a once in a lifetime talent too. They’re two different players, they do different things, but they’re both amazing in their own regard. I feel like we’re going to pick up right where we left off.”

Even more unknown is what to expect from the Louisville defense, which begins the season with its third different coordinator in three years, Brian VanGorder. The Cards also have some significant defections to fill on defense, but redshirt junior linebacker Jonathan Greenard, who led the Cardinals with 15.5 tackles for loss last season, says the defense will be better than it was.

“Be on the lookout, I’ll tell you that,” he said. “We’re working really hard. We realize last year wasn’t our best year defensively and we want to make sure we pride ourselves on becoming that No. 1 defense again like the University of Louisville used to do.”

He said VanGorder has earned the confidence of the defensive unit, and that changes in style and scheme should be effective.

“It’s a lot more aggressive,” Greenard said. “He’s using players a lot more. We’ve got a lot of guys who excel at different traits and he’s trying to use them to beat opponents in one-on-one matchups. I think he understands that and players understand that as well. We believe in him and we just want to play for him and get better.”

At the end of the sand session, Miday gathers players around a large rock next to the railroad fence on the practice fields. An offensive and defensive player are selected by coaches to crush a smaller rock with a sledgehammer as their teammates cheer.

On this day, Oklahoma transfer P.J. Mbanasor, a 6-1 redshirt junior cornerback, takes the shot that crushes the rock.

When Smith was talking about differences in this season’s team, he mentioned leadership, and Mbanasor was one of the players he mentioned.

“I feel like we’ve got a lot more leadership this year,” Smith said. “A lot of the guys, especially P.J. Mbanasor, who transferred, he just broke the rock and he’s been working hard all summer, since he got here year last year, actually, and he’s one of the more vocal guys, especially being able to be out there this year, and he’s really taken control of the secondary, being a guy who played in the Big 12, came here and brought experience and size and leadership. In my regard, I’ve gotten better at how I present myself among my teammates.”

While most of the talk in recent days has been about the stadium the play in, it’s worth noting that the players – while weighing in the subject when asked – didn’t really take their eyes off the ball.

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