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

level.”

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,

graduated.

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.”