Charlie Strong and the Louisville Cardinals held the annual Red and White spring football game before a pretty small crowd of loyal fans. It's impossible to overstate how much the team has changed since last season's red and white game when Strong and company had been on the job just three months. While many of the team's likely starters have had to sit out the spring with injuries, the players that did participate showed promise. Whereas everyone was learning something and often looked lost, the returning players this year showed a great deal of comfort with both the offensive and defensive systems and instead of having team wide confusion, it was only the new players and players in new positions that seemed to be unsure of their assignments. While there's always the temptation to read too much positively or negatively into a spring football game, there was plenty for Cardinals fans to leave feeling optimistic about for the 2011 season.
The Quarterback Battle
The battle for the quarterback remains the dominant storyline of the spring, but, after last night's game it should be less of a story. There's no doubting that Will Stein is more comfortable in the pocket than either Teddy Bridgewater or Dominique Brown. Stein has command of the offense, is equally effective under center or in the shotgun, and can make all of the throws. The wind really hindered the passing of all three quarterbacks last night. Still, Stein led the offense to its first two scores and later threw two more very nice touchdowns to Joch Chichester and Josh Bellamy. I have little doubt that Stein will be the starting quarterback heading into fall camp.
So what about Teddy? Teddy's performance was precisely what you might expect from a freshman. Early on he did a lot of things you might expect to see from a freshman. He pulled the ball down in the pocket, took his off of receivers and looked at the pass rush, and rushed a few throws. In the second half, however, Teddy showed why he was so highly rated and was so hotly pursued by the coaching staff. Teddy led the team on multiple scoring drives while completing a variety of throws from quick slants to deep square-ins and even airing it out a few times with ease. If you're looking for a quarterback to compare Bridgewater to, I would say that Virginia Tech's Tyrod Taylor is the most similar. The thing I liked most about Teddy is that although he is clearly mobile, he uses his mobility to buy more time to throw rather than just tucking and running when a play break down.
I wouldn't be surprised to see Stein named the starter heading into the season and Teddy enter game situationally with a package of plays that expands throughout the year.
There's no denying that the defense dominated the scrimmage. That being said, some offensive players still played well and should contribute in the fall. The most encouraging thing coming out of the game was the play of senior running back Victor Anderson. Fans have longed for Anderson to remain healthy and return to form that earned him Big East Freshman of the Year in 2008. If last night's play is any indication, Anderson may be "back". He ran the ball hard between the tackles and on that stretch play that has become such a large part of the offense, and wowed the crowd when he took a handoff to the right, then cut back left and took it 55 yards for a touchdown. If he and Jeremy Wright stay healthy in the fall, they will make am excellent backfield tandem.
Josh Chichester (branded "Chi-Daddy" by Strong) looks very comfortable working exclusively at tight end and should be a very reliable weapon this season. Chichester drew a pretty loud groan when he dropped his first pass attempt early in the game. After that drop, Chichester was outstanding. He's going to be a very difficult to cover when matched up with slower linebackers and shorter safeties. Combined in two tight end sets with Stephon Ball and Chris White and Louisville should be able to replace Cameron Graham's production.
It's exciting to say with all honesty that despite the entire starting front four being out with injuries, the defensive line looked dominant last night. The decision to move former outside linebacker Marcus Smith to defensive end is an unquestionable success. Smith is now at 6'4, 250 lbs and has retained all of the quickness he had as a freshman linebacker. He got to the quarterback routinely last night and was equally comfortable in some of the zone blitz looks that defensive coordinator Vance Bedford loves to utilize. In addition to Smith, defensive tackles Roy, Randy Salmon and Jamaine Brooks were equally disruptive. It's amazing to think about how thin and undermanned the defensive line looked when Strong arrived. Now, with Smith, Greg Scruggs, B.J. Butler, and William Savoy at end and Philon, Brooks, Salmon, and Brandon Dunn at defensive tackle, the defensive line will be a team strength in 2011.
In the secondary, I risk being accused of exaggeration when I say that Shenard Holton reminds me of Florida safety Major Wright. Holton doesn't have blazing speed, but he is an absolutely fearless hitter who also had a pick last night in the game. He's also the audible leader of the defense on the field. He and sophomore Hakeem Smith, the Big East's Rookie of the Year in 2010, make the defense strong at every level. The only question that remains to be answered on the defense is who will play cornerback. No one has truly distinguished themselves and several of the incoming freshmen will have the chance to earn early playing time as a result.
It's interesting, perhaps only to me, to note how the offensive philosophy has changed so much since Mike Sanford arrived last year. I vividly recall the offense looking very much like the Utah spread offense that had so clearly been associated with Sanford and the offensive assistants that came with Strong (particularly Vance Bedford). Now, that offense is nowhere to be found. The Cardinals still run plenty of plays from the shotgun, but there's almost nothing of the spread option left. Now the Cardinals use two tight ends often, line up in the pistol to allow for downhill running, and last night even used a tight end and a fullback in offset I-formation running plays. Coach Strong said that the Cardinals are not a spread option team, they are a play-action passing team and that showed Friday night. As a defensive coordinator, Strong knows that a team that can impose its will on the ground is the toughest to defend and he is determined to build that kind of offense himself. It's a welcome sign to Cardinals fans who delighted in Petrino's power running style.