Following a 2011 campaign in which Louisville often failed to put large numbers on the scoreboard, I think it's safe to say that a similar offensive deficiency was a concern for Cardinal fans heading into this season. That being the case, I don't think there's any question that Teddy Bridgewater and company have met or exceeded expectations in many ways through 1/3 of this season. You could almost say that the defense and offense have flipped places from where they were a year ago.
On the other side of the ball, the defense returned a lot of experience and with a defensive minded coach, we all expected a very stingy unit. That hasn't always been the case as recently we've seen the Cards get torched by North Carolina in the second half and struggle to slow down another spread team in FIU.
Suffice it to say that through four games somethings have turned out the way we thought they would, but a lot haven't
Let's take a look, unit by unit.
Quarterback: It has been stated on this site as well as countless others that Teddy Bridgewater is having a remarkable season. Let me go ahead and say it again: Young Theodore is doing an amazing job of spreading the ball around the field to keep defenses off balance. I've heard a lot of comments about DeVante Parker's role in the offense, but it takes a really good quarterback to not only recognize that his top receiver is being schemed against, but to also resist the urge of forcing the ball to him. With the way that Teddy is spreading the wealth, no coordinator will be able to take away a player while also stopping every other guy. Teddy's season has the makings of something special. He will face better defenses in the Big East, but I think that with the momentum he has right now the sky is the limit.
Running Back: If we had found out that Dom Brown was potentially out for the season this summer the collective "WE'RE SCREWED" would have been deafening. Not because Brown is such a great player, but because the two guys behind him had their issues. Jeremy Wright has had his troubles with staying healthy and holding onto the ball. Senorise Perry on the other hand was playing a different position last summer. So even after their great performances in the Kentucky game, a lot of fans were still asking when Brown would return. I doubt those people are worried anymore. Wright is a solid first half away from surpassing his season total in yards from last season. Also, between the two backs, they are five touchdowns away from running for more touchdowns than the entire team did in 2011. The production of this duo has been essential to Louisville's undefeated start.
Receivers: When Damien "Honey Mustard" Copeland made the diving catch on the first passing play of the season, I knew we were in for a breakout season at the receiver position. Six different Cardinals have caught touchdown passes and that group doesn't almost amazingly doesn't include Copeland, Parker, or Scott Radcliff. Defenses have shifted coverages to try to take Parker out of the game and they have succeeded for the most part. Look for him to start getting looks once Big East play starts since those coordinators are more familiar with our team and know that Teddy will always find the open guy.
And how about Andrell Smith? The big senior has finally been able to show how good he really is this season. He leads the team in both catches and yards, and has done a great job of fighting off defenders after the catch. Nate Nord has also made the most of his final season as a Cardinal and has more catches this year than he had for his career coming in. Another thing that needs to be pointed out is the outstanding blocking by the guys out wide. there have been countless times already where a running back is cutting up the field and a receiver has pinned a corner outside of the numbers. It doesn't show up on the stat sheet, but it's essential to a good running game.
Offensive line: One could easily make the argument that the offensive line is the most improved group on the team. The unit has paved the way for an outstanding running game and they have protected Teddy well. Louisville has given up just two sacks per game which is down from last season. They've also cut down on penalties. Outside of Jamon Brown, I can't think of a single false start this year. An offense is only as good as its front five and these guys are playing at a high level week in and week out.
Defensive Line: The defense as a whole has been somewhat of a disappointment. I'm the first person to point out the effect that the spread offenses have had on the defense, but at some point you expect a big play or two in a game. The defensive line has been pretty bad against the pass but they haven't gotten enough credit for how well they've played against the run. Having the 16th ranked run defense doesn't happen without good defensive line play. I firmly believe that when we don't have to face the spread every week, the line will start to get pressure on the quarterback.
Linebacker: Another byproduct of facing the spread is the lack of production from the linebackers. Dexter Heyman keyed the entire defense last season from his middle linebacker spot but Preston Brown doesn't seem to be having the same success. The major difference is actually the lack of plays behind the line of scrimmage. Dex didn't have a lot of tackles against spread offenses last season but he was still able to get a couple of tackles for losses in those games. It doesn't seem like much but we're one of the worst teams in the country in that category and it's a vital part of our defense. The linebackers have also been exposed in coverage this year. Teams have made it a point to isolate Preston in man coverage and it really just doesn't suit him. Hopefully by the time we get to Cincy and USF, the issues are fixed here.
Secondary: I say this without an inkling of hyperbole: We have one of the best safety combos in the nation. Calvin f'n Pryor and Hakeem Smith can do it all. They can both tackle in space. They can play deep or intermediate zone. They will make receivers think twice before exposing themselves across the middle. And most importantly, they can both blitz. One of the reasons that Smith gained so much notoriety over the last two seasons is because he was doing all of those things on his own. When Pryor took over for Shenard Holton last year Vance Bedford was allowed to blitz either safety as well as putting Smith in a short zone and leaving Pryor to play deep center field. As we've seen a handful of times, Pryor can cover an insane amount of ground and he does a great job of baiting quarterbacks. Guys that big are not supposed to be able to run from number to number but he does. And he arrives with bad intentions. Pryor and Smith lead the team in tackles but that's not necessarily a bad thing. They play all over the field so they tend to make plays.
The cornerbacks have done a decent job this season but they have given up a few too many touchdowns in my opinion. By my count the corners are responsible for 5 of the 9 touchdown passes surrendered this year. That's a ridiculous pace at this point in the season. Bedford's defense is built around pressure and the corners are going to be on an island most of the time. These guys have struggled to keep up with guys in the redzone but they have done well in the open field. The redzone issues have to be fixed though because the run defense is stout and teams will just start to test the corners as opposed to dealing with the interior defense.
Special Teams: For a group that returned only long snapper Grant Donovan, this group has performed extremely well. Our two kickers haven't missed a field goal and both punters have hit the ball well and given the coverage team time to get down the field and make a play. However, our kickoff coverage and return teams have left a lot to be desired. John Wallace started off the season by putting his first two kickoffs into the endzone. He then injured himself trying to make a tackle. Since then, only one kick has been downed in the endzone and the coverage unit has been pretty abysmal when it comes to getting the return man stopped.
All in all the positive far outweighs the negative here. The offense is playing at an unbelievable level and there's a reason for some of the defense's struggles, and some easy fixes for those reasons.
Shawn Watson has shown that he can mix in different playcalls and looks, and he's also utilized the talent that he has on hand better than I would have ever dreamed. Vance Bedford and Charlie Strong are two of the better defensive minds in the country and I'm sure I speak for the vast majority of us when I say that we trust that they will figure things out.
We have a legitimate Heisman Trophy hopeful and we again have energy around this football program. Nicknames like "Honey Mustard", "Deuce", and "Pooda" have fans engaged with the players in a way that we honestly haven't seen outside of some local guys. It's a great time to be a Louisville Cardinal fan and personally I could not be happier.
A win Saturday night would move Louisville to 5-0 for the first time in six years. Not much too complain about with that, folks.