Bobby Petrino proved that rebuilding wasn't needed at Louisville. He inherited a program that returned just nine starters off of a disappointing 7-6 season in 2003. No worries.
Petrino, who served as John L. Smith's offensive coordinator at Louisville in 1998, plugged untested quarterback Stefan LeFors into his high-octane offense and watched the records fall. The Cardinals set school marks for total offense (6,355 yards), rushing (2,966 yards) and points (450) and finished fifth nationally with an average of 489 yards per game.
Their offensive prowess translated into more victories as well. Louisville finished with a 9-4 overall record and played in a bowl game for the sixth consecutive season.
OffenseAs the understudy to Dave Ragone, LeFors had thrown only 16 passes in his first two seasons. Judging from his stellar junior season, it didn't appear to stunt his development as a quarterback. LeFors, an accurate lefty, was aided by a trio of running backs -- Lionel Gates, Eric Shelton and Michael Bush -- who rushed for more than 2,100 yards and 27 touchdowns.
With eight starters back on offense, Louisville may be establishing more offensive records as it plays its final season as a Conference USA member before jumping to the Big East. Petrino said one area his potent offense can improve is having its receivers work on "running after the catch."
DefenseIf the Cardinals vastly improve on last year's disappointing defensive numbers, the transformation could begin up front, where three starters -- end Marcus Jones and tackles Montavious Stanley and Bobby Leffew -- return. Jones was one of the top pass rushers in the conference last season. They'll be joined by Shane Bailey at the other end, with depth provided by Elvis Dumervil and Amobi Okoye.
Three starters -- Antoine Harris, Brent Johnson and Kerry Rhodes -- are back in the secondary after solid seasons. Sophomore William Gay, a spot starter in 2003, has the potential to be a dominant corner. A converted wide receiver, Harris should benefit from going through his first full spring at cornerback. Despite being a newcomer to the secondary, Harris still had 51 tackles, six pass breakups and tied for the team lead with three interceptions.
SpecialistsBroderick Clark hopes to shake off the injuries that plagued him a year ago to return to the form that made him one of the nation's top kick returners in 2002. The Cards welcome back punter Brent Moody, who enjoyed a solid freshman season, but they'll have to find a new placekicker. Arthur Carmody, who was redshirted last season, is a former prep all-state performer with an accurate leg.
Final AnalysisIf the Cardinals are to finish their Conference USA run with a title, they'll need to get an assist from a porous defense, one that couldn't stop anyone by season's end. New coordinator Mike Cassity, a former defensive coordinator and defensive backs coach at Illinois, brings 28 years of experience. And he'll have a little bit more to work with than the Cards' previous coordinator, including the two-way athlete Bush and several others from the offense. Bush dropped 10 pounds -- to 240 -- and was expected to receive intense training at safety during the spring, but he broke a bone in his foot on the first day of workouts.
Petrino said it's imperative that the Cards establish on defense the same confidence that the offense displayed a year ago. If it does, the Cards could find themselves celebrating a C-USA title in the Liberty Bowl.