Posted by ESPN.com's Brian Bennett
Louisville will begin spring practice on Sunday, the first school in the Big East to get back on the field. It will be an important time for the Cardinals, who are trying to fill several holes after a second straight season that ended without a bowl game. I caught up this week with head coach Steve Kragthorpe for the latest installment of our spring Big East Q&A series.
Is spring time an exciting time for the coaching staff?
Steve Kragthorpe: To me, spring ball is always one of the fun parts of our job, in terms of taking a new group of guys and molding them together, seeing how all the pieces start to fit together. We've got a lot of guys who've maybe had no roles at all that are going to jump into roles and some guys who've had minor roles who are now going to jump up into major roles. And the fun part about spring practice is there's always a surprise or two, a guy you weren't quite sure was ready to play who jumps up and says, "Hey, I'm ready to take one of these spots."
How do you see the quarterback competition shaping up, and how will you divvy up the spring reps there?
SK: We'll divide them up pretty much equally for the major part of the spring and start to see guys separate from each other. And as guys start to separate, we'll give them a few more repetitions. But my goal is not to name a starting quarterback by the end of spring practice. We will do that about 10 days before the first game. But I'm looking for guys to be consistent, I'm looking for guys that move the chains, I'm looking for guys to lead the other 10 guys on that field and I'm looking for guys who, over a continuum of time, can be a consistent performer.
You have to shape your offense around the talents of the quarterback, obviously. So how do you, as your own offensive coordinator, do that now if you don't yet know who will be your starter?
SK: We're going to install concepts and make sure we do a good job of establishing an identity on offense, establishing a way of playing the position of quarterback and a way of going about playing offense. And then from there we'll wrinkle, based upon what guys do well, based upon what guys are stepping up ... For us, we want to make sure we're very conceptual on offense, we're very concise in terms of our teaching and we establish a system. And from that system we'll wrinkle based on the guys who need the ball in their hands.
How do you see the offensive line shaping up with the loss of Eric Wood and George Bussey?
SK: I feel good about it. I think now we have some players who have the opportunity to step up into a vacated area. George, and especially Eric, were guys we'll really miss. Eric was not just a good football player, he's a solid person and a great leader. So certainly we will not only miss his ability to play center, we'll miss his leadership on the offensive line, the offense and the football team.
So we've got to find a guy to step up in that position, and I think Mario Benavides is a guy who's benefited from being here for a year with Eric. Even though he was a true freshman last year, he came in in January, and I think Eric was a great mentor for him. I think he's got a chance to be a good player for us. He's got to grow up very quickly, because we lost not only Eric but Nick Borgelt, who was our backup center. And then with George, we lose a guy who played left tackle for us, played a little left guard, could play right tackle, was a very versatile player.
It's a big year for Jeff Adams. Jeff started every game for us at right tackle, and now he's got to take what he learned playing in those 12 games and continue to improve as a player and a leader of that group. He's really now the most veteran of those players. I think Abdul (Kuyateh) had a good offseason. I think he's understanding now what it takes to be a good offensive lineman, the work ethic on the field and off the field, studying the game. He'd been a defensive lineman before, in his first year of junior college, so he's learning to play on the offensive line and has done a nice job. And then Mark Wetterer got a lot of valuable experience before he got banged up. So I like our offensive line. I think we've got seven or eight guys that I feel good about putting in the game, and I'd like to get that number to 10.
Greg Tomczyk will stay at left guard, then?
SK: Yes. Greg brings versatility. We always want to put our 11 best guys on the field, and sometimes last year we had to reconfigure some things in order to do that. We had to play Bussey at left guard, Greg at left tackle. Sometimes we had to flip a little bit when Jeff went down.
The defensive line looks to me like the most wide-open position on the team this spring. Do you agree with that assessment?
SK: I think that will be one of the interesting story lines as we progress through spring practice. Because we do lose some very good players, some guys who had a significant amount of playing time here, and now we're jumping into some guys who, I guess in some people's minds, may not yet be proven commodities but I think are going to prove themselves pretty quickly. I think we've got good talent, I think coach (Ken) Delgado does a great job with those guys. We've just got to establish more depth. I'd like to get to where we're playing eight or nine guys. I like those guys, and it will be a great competition because there really aren't a lot of incumbents.
I liken it a lot to our linebacker situation last year. We started the season against Kentucky, and we trot three linebackers out there, and various times four out there, that had never taken a snap at Louisville. And three of them had never been in spring training. Three guys walked in in August. So we're similar in that way, but we do have two of the defensive linemen, in Joe Townsend and Malcom Tatum, that are here for spring practice, so I think that helps. I hope guys jump up and play as well as (linebacker) Jon Dempsey did (in '08).
You seemed to lack speed on the edge of the defensive line last year. Do you see that as improving this year?
SK: I think so. I really think that Rodney Gnat's done a good job for us in winter conditioning drills. This is Greg Scruggs' first-ever, really, winter conditioning drills. You know, last year at this time, he was playing on the basketball court and in the band. He stepped up and played pretty well for us as a true freshman, and I think he's got a lot of skill, a lot of want-to. I think William Savoy has done pretty well for us as a walk-on; he caused the safety against Kentucky last year. I think we have some candidates there. They're, again, guys who are maybe not proven in outsiders' minds, but they're proving things to us all the time the way they're working, and now it's a big spring for them.
At cornerback, you've got a couple of good players but it doesn't look like you have much depth at all.
SK: We don't have a lot of depth there, and that's an area of concern for me right now, is finding guys who can step up and be every-down players. Certainly, with the way this league has gone, now with people playing more three- and four-wide receiver sets, you've got to have three or four or even five corners who can play, because you're going to play against a bunch of teams that are going to put the 10 personnel on the field, four wide receivers on the field, and you've got to be able to match up against those, especially if you want to play some man coverage. So we've got to find more guys who are capable of playing at a high level. I think Johnny Patrick's had a good offseason, Karldell (Dunning) had a good offseason. A bunch of guys just have to step up and play.
Receiver seems like an area that could be a real strength for you, if Scott Long is healthy.
SK: Yeah, we've got a chance. Getting Scottie back, that will be helpful. He'll miss spring practice but he should back at full strength by Aug. 1. You know, really going into the season, you thought Scottie was going to play about 70 percent of the snaps at that 'X' position, and Josh (Chichester) and Troy (Pascley) would play about 15-20 percent. All of a sudden Scottie goes down, and those guys are forced into it. I think they did an excellent job of playing hard and staying focused and learning from the mistakes they made on the field. They're going to benefit from having those repetitions in games. Dougie (Beaumont) is back for us, too, and he had a good year, Trent (Guy) is back and healthy for us, Maurice Clark is doing some good things, as is Andrew Robinson. We've got some young guys like Jacques Caldwell, who was second in the Big East in the 200 indoor, and Damion Dixon and a true freshman Andrell Smith. So we've got depth there, we've just got to get more proven commodities.
How much better can Victor Anderson get?
SK: I think Vic's got a tremendous amount of potential. He played well for us last year, and I know Vic's excited to go out on the practice field and continue to improve every single day. I think that's what excites me and excites Vic, is that he really played well and did a nice job for us last year, but he's still untapped. There's still a lot in the coffer that we can take out. Bilal Powell and Darius Ashley are having good offseasons, and we've got good quality depth there. But we've got to continue to find depth there because we got beat up as the year went on. I talked with Vic about getting a little bigger, a little stronger so he can take the punishment, because when you get hit it's like being in a car wreck, and when you're in 20 of those every Saturday ... a lot of pounding goes into your body. So we've got to get Vic to where he's fresh not only the first four games of the year but the last four games of the year, too.
Now that you're calling your own plays, have you been rewriting the playbook?
SK: We've rearranged the playbook with some concepts I feel really good about. Some concepts I used at Buffalo with Kevin Gilbride, some concepts I used with Dan Henning when I was the playcaller and quarterbacks coach at Boston College in '96, some things we did when (at) Northern Arizona and some things we've done over the last two years here. So, it's kind of mixing and matching, and we've got guys with fresh ideas and new things. Again, more than anything, we'll try to be more conceptual in the passing game, try to be multiple in terms of doing things with different personnel packages and different formations and motions, and yet teaching a concise system with the quarterback.
During the spring, will you primarily be working with the offense, then, or will you be all over the field?
SK: A little of both. I hired Matt Wells, who was with me at Tulsa and played the position of college quarterback for four years, so Matt knows my personality. He knows what I like and don't like. He actually played quarterback for John L. Smith and Bobby Petrino at Utah State. So he's a guy who's been well-trained, a guy I trust coaching those quarterbacks. I'll be over there most of the time, but there will be times when I will need to be with special teams or with the defense. I feel good about the offensive staff we have, and if I'm over working some area of the field, the things I want done are going to get done.
I'm sure you know this is a big year for you, after two non-winning seasons and with stadium expansion on the way. Do you feel like you have to get to a bowl game this year?
SK: We want to get to a bowl game. It's important for a couple of reasons. You get to continue to practice and develop younger players, and the other thing is you don't have as much lag time between the end of your season and when you can start your winter conditioning. And then obviously it's a huge measuring stick. The bowl game has become one of the benchmarks in college football. And so certainly we want to get back to going to bowl games on a consistent basis every year. And we want to compete for the championship. We're here to compete for championships. We've got our eyes set on the prize, and that's winning a championship and going to a bowl game. We've got a lot of work to do to do that, but we're going to stay focused on the task at hand, and that's getting better each day we walk out there, and then ultimately hoping put ourselves in position at the end of the season to do that.
Do you think you have the personnel right now to compete for a Big East title?
SK: We're getting closer. I'll be better able to answer that question about August 25th than I will right now. Because we've got a lot of new guys that I'm excited to see on the field. We've got a lot of guys coming in that I'm excited to see on the field in August. You're not creating a finished product on April 17th in our spring game, and you're really not creating a finishing product on the 20th of August.
Getting back to the previous question, I guess what I was getting at was, do you feel like you need to win a certain number of games this year in order to keep your job?
SK: I don't put a benchmark on games, I really don't. I'm going to go into every game and try like heck to win it and be pissed if we don't. That's the nature of how I operate. The only time I haven't been in that situation was preseason games in the NFL and it drove me nuts. So every time we take field try to win the football game then count them up at the end see where it leaves us.
What's been the hardest part of your time here? I've heard you say in the past that it's been hardest for your family.
SK: It's been good for my family, though, because I think they understand all that glitters isn't gold. They understand there's expectation levels that go with certain places and po
sitions that you might hold, whether it's the CEO of a corporation or the CEO of a football program. So I think it's been a very educational situation for my family and it's been good for them. Sometimes it's been the school of hard knocks, but there's nothing wrong with that. The people of Louisville have been great, we've got great fans here, we've got passionate fans here. They want to win, and I can promise you the guys in this building want to win, too.