Strong embracing high expectations for Louisville
Charlie Strong has brought respectability back to Louisville in
his first two seasons. Now there’s hope he can return the Cardinals
to their greatest heights in year three.
Strong has rebuilt the Cardinals after Bobby Petrino bolted for
the NFL followed by the Steve Kragthrope era. Louisville is the
preseason pick to win the Big East, and Strong is embracing those
lofty expectations. He’s telling his Cardinals to work hard to
reach outsiders’ lofty predictions.
”Now all of a sudden you’ve been picked to go win the
conference. Guys, then I’m sorry. That’s just the way it is,”
Strong said. ”That’s who we are right now. That’s what people
think of you. So if you someone thinks that high of you, then let’s
go show them. Let’s go work like we want to get to that
Center Mario Benavides has seen the changes firsthand, starting
every game as a redshirt freshman for the 2009 team that finished
4-8. Now a senior and a candidate for the Outland Trophy for the
nation’s top interior lineman, he said the energy level of both
players and fans is palpable.
”I’d be lying to you if I said it’s not a little bit of a
different feel,” Benavides said. ”There seems to be a little bit
more buzz around the program. But you have to go through the tough
times to potentially see some good times.”
Strong says top teams are ”good down the middle” at
quarterback, center, nose tackle, middle linebacker and safety. By
that measure, he could have the makings of a contender. Louisville
has Benavides and quarterback Teddy Bridgewater, last year’s Big
East rookie of the year, on offense with All-Big East safety Hakeem
Smith as the defensive anchor.
Juniors Brandon Dunn and Preston Brown return as starters at
nose tackle and linebacker, respectively. Brown had 84 tackles that
ranked second on team, while Smith expected to shift to inside to
fill the hole created when last year’s top tackler, Dexter Heyman,
Youth with its uncertainty and exuberance could be Louisville’s
biggest challenge. Louisville has just nine seniors compared to
thirteen sophomores who earned at least one start as freshmen last
season. One of the sophomores, wide receiver Michaelee Harris, tore
the ACL in his left knee last week and will miss the season.
”You’re looking around the room and there’s not many (seniors)
at many positions,” Strong said. ”So you’re hoping the guys that
have played that they’ve played enough where they continue to grow.
They mature and they grow up and now the leadership can come not
only from a senior but from someone else.”
Defensive coordinator Vance Bedford said early signs show the
team is focused on football and not what others think. Still,
coaches don’t know how the youngsters will react Sept. 2 when the
Cardinals host rival Kentucky in the opener.
”When the lights come on, people start cheering and you hear
`My Old Kentucky Home,’ you don’t know what’s going to happen. They
might start crying. I might needs some Pampers,” Bedford quipped.
”I don’t know what they are going to do.”
After becoming the school’s first true freshman to start at
quarterback since 1976, Bridgewater is growing on the field and in
stature. He’s now up to 222 pounds, up from 180 when he entered
college and the 195 he was at in last year’s Belk Bowl loss. He
said the Cardinals worry about what it takes to earn another BCS
game, not what people say about them.
”We just think about like coach Strong always says, what people
were saying two years ago,” Bridgewater said. ”How no one would
have predicted this university, this football team, to be in the
running for the conference championship. We try not to think of
those expectations at all.”