Charlie Strong opened his second spring as the head coach on Wednesday. Friday, the Cardinals finished their mandatory second practice in helmets and shorts before today's schedule practice in full pads. While it is difficult to glean much from practices in shorts, here are some of the initial impressions I have of the 2011 Cardinals after two days.
As is usually the case, the first thing that jumps out in spring practice is position changes. For Louisville, there are four key changes, all of which should help bolster depth at positions of need. First, sophomore Marcus Smith has moved from outside linebacker to defensive end. Smith signed with Louisville as a quarterback but was quickly moved to outside linebacker as a freshman. He's continued to grow and now at 6'4, 250, he's running with the first team at defensive end due to graduation and injuries that are keeping several defensive linemen out of spring practice. The second prominent position change sees Greg Scruggs go back to defensive end, his position his first two years on campus, after spending the 2010 season as an undersized defensive tackle. The emergence of young defensive tackles Brandon Dunn, Roy Philon, and redshirt freshman Jamaine Brooks gives Louisville enough bodies to allow Scruggs to go back to end. Scruggs is injured and will not participate in spring practice, so we'll have to wait until fall camp to see how his transition back to defensive end works out. Third, Terrence Simien has moved down from safety to outside linebacker. Simien was always a big safety (6'3, 210), so this move makes sense. With the Hakeem Smith and Shenard Holton holding down the safety positions, and the addition of Jermaine Reve and Gerrod Holliman in the class of 2011, there's more of a need for Simien at outside linebacker than safety. He's unlikely to crack the starting lineup at linebacker either, but, should provide depth. The final position move saw Zed Evans move back from running back to cornerback after one day of practice. Evans played corner as a true freshman while redshirting in 2009 before playing running back last season. With the departure of Johnny Patrick and Bobby Burns, and the shoulder injury to Darius Ashley that is keeping him out of spring practice, the cornerback position battle is wide open. So, Evans is back with the defense and frankly performed quite well yesterday in his first day back on the job.
The biggest question coming into spring was how would the quarterback position be and will freshman Teddy Bridgewater really push Will Stein for the starting job come fall camp. My initial reaction to seeing two days of Teddy throw in practice is mostly positive. Teddy stands tall in the pocket, has very good mechanics and a quick release, throws well on the run and when rolling either direction, and has more than enough arm strength to get the ball down the field or throw the deep out routes to the sideline. Add to that, players and coaches alike have already noted that Teddy seems to have "it", that presence that a quarterback needs to have in order to lead the team.
That's not to say that Teddy is ready to be the starter today. At times he looked uncomfortable under center and struggled with the quarterback center exchange on multiple plays (though, in fairness, it's hard to determine who is more at fault in those situations. Was it Bridgewater or the center?). Additionally, he seems to try and aim the ball when making underneath and intermediate throws. We'll learn a lot more about Teddy today when he and the team all practice in pads, but, if those are the only two real issues for him to overcome, the future is bright for Teddy.
Meanwhile, Will Stein is having a fine start to his spring practice. He has more than enough zip on all of his passes, has command of the offense, and has looked very sharp throwing the ball so far. Obviously, there will always be fan concern that he's relatively short (5'11), but, when he's on the field, it's not a hindrance. Teddy is the future at quarterback. If Stein is the present, he'll be more than enough to give the Cardinals a chance to win games.
The Cardinals added four freshmen in January (Bridgewater, Jermaine Reve, Brandon Golson, and Charles Gaines, Jr.). If the first two practices mean anything, all four should see playing time in the fall. Gaines has tremendous speed and while dropping a few passes in practice, he's looked every bit the part of a future star at receiver so far. With Andrell Smith and Damian Copeland out of spring practice with injuries, Gaines is getting plenty of reps. Reve is a good sized safety that is already running with the second team. His signing is one of the reasons Simien could be moved to outside linebacker. Golson may very well end up starting at outside linebacker by the time the season rolls around. At 6'2, 225 lbs, Golson has both the size and speed Strong loves to have in an outside linebacker. Once he learns the system and gets comfortable in it, he will push for playing time. All four early enrollees are significant upgrades at their positions.
Team Strengths and Weaknesses
Without question, the strength of the 2011 Cardinals is going to be the defensive front seven. You might even expand that to say "the defense inside the hashmarks". When fully healthy, the Cardinals will have eight experienced defensive linemen to go along with linebackers Dexter Heyman, Preston Brown, and Daniel Brown. Whereas the defense was afraid of being undersized and blown off the ball in 2010, 2011 should have no such problem. To top it off, Shenard Holton and Big East freshman of the year Hakeem Smith have the safety positions locked down. The only real challenge for the defense will be to continue to build depth and identify competent cornerbacks by fall.
A second strength should be wide receiver. Josh Bellamy looks to be full speed and have that swagger that he had heading into last season before suffering a concussion in the opener against Kentucky. Freshman Gaines, Jr. has looked great, if inconsistent. Sophomore Jarrett Davis has taken advantage of the injuries to Michaelee Harris, A. Smith and D. Copeland and has looked comfortable running with the first unit across from Bellamy. When fall comes, the unit is healthy, and the Cardinals also welcome freshmen phenoms Eli Rogers and Devante Parker, the receiver position should truly challenge defenses.
Last Open Practice
Today is the final open practice and the first in pads. It should allow a better look at the offensive line and the running game. Check back later today for a report on the last look we'll have of the Cardinals before the April 15th spring game.