Welcome young and old to year number seven of ‘The Cardinal Countdown’.
Seven glorious off-seasons that you and I will have shared together learning, laughing, yelling, crying, canoodling…ok, maybe not canoodling, but we’ve certainly shared a snuggle or two in the comment section. We’ve been through some real deep stuff, ya know?! A quick Google search informs me that the traditional seventh anniversary gift is copper. Sooo….if you’re feeling frisky take a moment to ponder all the memories we’ve shared these past seven years and then maybe go swipe a little copper tubing in the darkness of night and head my direction. Nothing says commitment to me like selling scrap metal together for pennies on the dollar! I need to know you’re all in this season, and I mean felony level ALL IN.
The last 8-10 months have been some tough times for Cardinals fans, present company not excluded. Football in 2017 was frankly a big disappointment. Did I set my expectations too high? Was my judgment of what the team should have accomplished unrealistic? Possibly, but at the risk of reopening old wounds the talent, the schedule, and the depth was all there to do something special last season, and it just never materialized. If you want a refresher feel free to go back and check out my four part series during the Cards “race towards a championship” last season. A race that never really got started. You can check out Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, and Part 4 all right here. The stats are there for you to read, but it didn’t take a wily veteran to see where the deficiencies were early in the year and into the heart of the schedule. The defensive production, along with unforced errors resulting in turnovers and penalties were once again killing the Cards chance to make some noise on a national level. The outsiders were yelling for change three games in, and even though the return of some defensive stars aided in the resurgence of the unit overall late in the year, the bowl game was another stubbed toe and black eye for a team looking to prove it was more than just “a bunch of dudes”.
As we start to now look forward into the 2018 season we have a lot to be excited about. Not only do we have a new signal caller in Puma Pass, who many think will run the more traditional Petrino offense, but we also have a beautiful stadium expansion, numerous night games, and some new faces on the coaching staff we should try and get to know over the course of the next 3 months.
Let’s take a second and get introductions out of the way. I’m CardinalStrong, and you are…..?
Brian VanGorder – Defensive Coordinator
BVG takes over the top spot on the defensive side of the ball for the Cards, replacing Peter Sirmon, who is now an associate head coach on defense at the University of Calif...oh, who gives a crap. The Sirmon hire never quite made sense to many from Day 1, coming off a questionable season at Mississippi State (In fact, he may be the catalyst for our Mississippi State misery from the 2017-18 sports calendar) and lacking any other DC experience prior to that position, many wondered why he would be the man for job. Turns out, they were correct. After one season Sirmon was “now free to move about the country” and a replacement was named shortly after. VanGorder last coached at Oklahoma State as a defensive assistant but is known more on a national scale for his run at Georgia in the early 2000’s where he had them as a consistent Top 5 defensive unit, and his time at Norte Dame from 2014-16. Even though that relationship came to an unceremonious ending his coaching reputation is still very prestigious, having been a part of three different NFL staffs (JAX/ATL/NYJ), and working for UCF (defending 2017 National Champs) and Auburn, in addition to the schools previously mentioned above.
BVG was asked at his introductory press conference about his defensive philosophy, and it was nice to hear he has experience with multiple sets having learned the 4-3 scheme under Jack del Rio and Mike Smith, while taking cues on the 3-4 from Rex Ryan. He also emphasized that having the best players on the field will ultimately dictate the scheme he runs, especially this year, fielding players he didn’t specifically recruit. Loaded with talent up front, look for more of the 4-3….have a few more studs at linebacker, you’ll see more 3-4. Flexibility is the key to his approach and if our depth chart is any indication, I’d expect to see a more LB heavy front having lost four players in the trenches from 2017. During Spring Ball multiple players have stated that the plays and terminology are very similar to what they learned under Grantham two seasons ago, and while that wasn’t perfect, I doubt any fan or coach would be upset with getting back to being a national power on the defensive side of the football. As with any new hire only time will tell if his knowledge translates to results, but even the most staunch Sirmon supporter likely saw a change was needed as the 2017 season progressed. Welcome BVG to the Cards family. You ready to get that D back into the Top 20 coach?
Ryan Beard- Defensive Assistant
Beard has actually been on the Louisville staff four of the last five seasons, with a year at WKU (2016) mixed in between. Most recently Beard served as a defensive quality control coach, helping out almost exclusively in the Cardinals secondary. With the NCAA rule change allowing programs to hire a 10th on field position coach Beard fit the mold for a guy who could be bumped up from his previous role into a fulltime coaching gig. At the time of announcement many assumed Beard would take over the safeties spot and shift Coach Lorenzo Ward to cornerbacks, but a later staff addition (see below) seems to indicate that Beard will be working with the linebackers moving forward, helping pick up where Cort Dennison left off. Hopefully the staff and players see it as a smooth transition signing someone who is already familiar with the program and the expectations Coach Petrino has of him moving forward. I’d be remiss if I didn’t also mention that he’s currently married to the former Katie Petrino, therefore making him a son-in-law of Coach Petrino. Seems to me Petrino’s Coaching tree and family tree are one in the same...amiright?! [rimshot] (I’m already blocked, who cares). In all seriousness though, Beard seems like a solid hire and I’m on board with anyone who loves the University and is gonna put in the time to succeed. He’s shown he has the chops to do both.
Grady Brown- Defensive Assistant/Recruiting Coordinator
Grady comes to the Cards from Alabama State (safeties) through way of South Carolina (2012-15) where he teamed up with the aforementioned coach Lorenzo Ward, to help lead a Top 25 secondary for multiple seasons. In my opinion, Coach Brown has one of if not the largest voids to fill this season replacing former linebacker coach/recruiting coordinator Cort Dennison who left for Oregon after the bowl game. Cort was a monster on the recruiting trail, consistently pegged as one of the Cards best recruiters the past few seasons being the primary guy on Tutu Atwell, Jordan Travis, CJ Avery, and Dejmi Dumervil Jean just to name a few. Florida was his stomping ground and other coaches will have to step up to fill in that void, including the newly acquired coach Brown. The good news is that Grady is no slouch out on the road and has a reputation for being a special recruiter as well, pulling in four different players ranked four stars or above during his tenure with the Gamecocks. I’m looking forward to seeing how he translates his talents both on and off the field in the seasons to come.
And now, 100 days from kickoff you are officially caught up with the offseason shenanigans of the coaching staff. Notice all three changes came on the defensive side of the football (they were…uh…not great last season). As a side note, this staff just so happened to wrap up one of the best recruiting classes the Card’s have ever seen starting back in December (early signing period) and closing it out in February on National Signing Day. The finally tally from various services had them in the late 20’s or early 30’s (#29: 24/7 #31: Rivals #28: ESPN), placing them right at the 4th or 5th best class in the ACC across the board. That group along with a strong 2017 class has placed the Cards in a good spot for the next couple seasons once the young guys get some reps. So, how will the 2018 season look? Glad you asked….
While we certainly have some decent sized question marks heading into the year, there are some areas that I’m excited about for the 2018 season. I may be alone in a couple of them, but I’m comfortable with that, and will accept all hand written apologies when proven correct. Since I tend to get a little “wordy” at times, here are some quick hitters for my TL;DR crowd:
Quarterback: Tough to lose a Heisman trophy winning QB who shattered almost every offensive record in the book, but take a peek behind the curtain at this position and you’ll see why I’m eager to roll the ball out this year. We saw flashes from Puma in the limited reps he got last season and a little more when he settled down in the Spring Game, but I honestly think he brings some of the same raw skills we saw in Lamar as a freshman, with a deeper understanding of the playbook and a more defined skill as a passer early in his career. Don’t sleep on Puma putting up some big numbers this year in a more prototypical Petrino offense, and if the Cards can lay big points early on some teams….don’t take a bathroom break when Malik Cunningham steps on the field either. We’ll see a dropoff overall at the position, because it’s not a realistic expectation to project otherwise, but Puma is a talented kid who has been waiting patiently for his time to shine. I think it happens sooner than later.
Running back: Another position where we lost talent, but I can’t express enough how much I like Dae Williams. Coming back from the injury last year was impressive in and of itself, but to finish out the year averaging over 6 yards/att is pretty damn exciting. We saw bits and pieces of what he can do in open space and an entire offseason to get back to 100% should only help. To offer some assistance a recovering Colin Wilson should be an additional threat, upperclassman Trey Smith and Malik Staples provide depth, and RS freshman Maurice Burkley has turned a head or two in the Spring (not to mention Tobias ‘Little Engine That Could’ who dropped 83 yards and a touch in the Spring Game). If we slide back into an offensive mindset that resembles the days of Brohm/Bush, look for the RB group to be much more active than they were a season ago. Puma has legs, but I would be shocked to see the RPO anywhere close to the frequency we did the last two years. A balanced attack that incorporates the running backs would make CardinalStrong VERY happy (So happy in fact, that I begin to speak in the third person).
Offensive Line: Mike Summers is a magician. As soon as he was hired last year the fan base seemed to collectively breathe a sigh of relief as their confidence level in Summers and his track record pointed towards vast improvement up front. And that’s exactly what happened. As I spoke about in my season recaps, he made the O-line issues of years past a non-issue within the first three games. Of course, recruiting some very talented athletes in those roles doesn’t hurt. Having McNeil and Kenny Thomas anchor the line as upperclassmen helps, but the youngbloods may lead the push in 2018, both figuratively and literally. Bentley, Bell, and Becton are your new “Killer B’s” in the trenches…and a new fella may join the hive pretty soon as Toryque Bateman has the size and talent to get some early reps as a RS freshman. Linwood Foy along with a couple local kids in Nate Scheler and Tyler Haycraft will be solid reinforcements and really provide this group with an opportunity to make the two position groups I spoke about above go from having good seasons, to great ones.
Secondary: It’s never fun to lose an All-American type player, and replacing Jaire along with veterans Tru Washington and Chucky will be no easy task, but, thanks to some transfers and young talent I’m pumped about what this unit may evolve into by mid-season. I think Rodjay Burns (via Ohio State) and PJ Mbanasor (via Oklahoma) are the headline grabs, and rightfully so as they are very athletic and solid corners who can play in isolation, but Russ Yeast and Lamarques Thomas will see expanded roles, and gifted new comers Chandler Jones and Anthony Johnson will help the group as well. At safety, Dee Smith and Khane Pass will be the upperclassman leaders, but the young guys will punch the clock early and often as TreSean Smith (returning from injury), Lyn Strange, and Kaheem Roach all look to get reps this year. I expect some growing pains early as overall they are still very young but we could be setting ourselves up for a really strong and really deep group the last 3/4 of the year.
If all of this was too much to digest, you’re in luck. At the time of this post no one has decided to wear the #99 uniform this season so you get a full day off tomorrow. Visit your family, spend time with loved ones, whatever makes you happy. Real countdown aficionados will come back and re-read this post in preparation for Day 98, but that’s dedication and experience that only true veterans can show this early in the process. I don’t expect that of everyone right now. Take a day to get your mind right and then come back on Day 98 ready to put in work. We’ve got 100 days until the Crimson-freakin’ Tide of Ala-freakin’-bama come looking for skulls to knock together. ‘Get ready or get wrecked’….or just come back at your leisure and read my posts in a nice relaxed manor. Tomayto-Tamahto.
100 Days until Kickoff.