Louisville hits offseason with extra baggage

When Charlie Strong arrived in Louisville, many believed the Cardinals would continue to be a league doormat.

They were picked to finish eighth in the 2010 preseason media poll.

The result: a surprising 7-6 record and bowl victory in Year 1. But the success of that season did little to raise expectations around the league, particularly because the Cardinals lost so many seniors.

They were picked to finish seventh in the 2011 preseason media poll.

The result: a surprising 7-6 season that ended with a share of the Big East championship.

Now, the script has been flipped. You can all but guarantee the Cardinals won't be found anywhere near the bottom of the Big East projections headed into 2012.

Indeed, Louisville leaves spring practice with a bit of extra baggage -- that of heightened expectations for a program that has not been to a BCS game since 2006.

"Now it's all about where are we going to take this team?" coach Charlie Strong said after the spring game wrapped this past weekend. "This could be a special group, but it's about work. A lot is going to be said about this team. A lot is going to be written about this team. Now, are we going to mature enough to handle all the writing out there, the publication of what is going to be said? Last year we were picked last, we end up in a three-way tie for first. This year, we're going to be picked first or second, so now we're going to see if we can work and then can we go play each week and be a consistent team every week? We'll see. We have a lot of work to do and we need to improve. We have to go get better."

By all accounts, quarterback Teddy Bridgewater has gotten himself better -- a huge key to Louisville's hopes this upcoming season. Offensive coordinator Shawn Watson estimated that Bridgewater completed 70 percent of his passes this spring. Strong notes that Bridgewater has opened himself up to coaching, and is willing to put in the time to make himself better.

While one tailback has not emerged to carry the load, Strong said he was OK with rotating among his four players. But getting that ground game established is going to be paramount if the Cardinals live up to the high expectations most everybody has of them this season.

Defensively, the Cardinals should be even stronger with so many players returning up front and in the secondary. Preston Brown has developed at middle linebacker this season as he replaces Dexter Heyman. Daniel Brown and Deiontrez Mount are projected to start as well, making the linebackers the most unproven group on defense. That is incredible to say, when you consider both Browns are returning starters.

"I just look at this whole football team," Strong said. "We're just a totally different team. Last year, we were trying to get a snap, practices were so bad, (it was) can we just get a snap, run a play? Now we feel we can function as a team. Even going out there (Saturday), it's a breath of fresh air. You're finally beginning to look like a football team."