Big East teams will be chasing Louisville
One constant in the Big East remained throughout the spring: Louisville looks as good as advertised, as the majority of its starters and nearly every member of its coaching staff return.
Well, they are just trying to catch up. Some teams have more answers than others now that the spring is behind them and the offseason is ahead.
First, those with a little more clarity. Start with Rutgers, which had to get adjusted to new coordinators on offense and defense, in addition to replacing its major playmakers on defense. Perhaps Ron Prince is the coach Gary Nova needed all his life. By all accounts, Nova looked like a new quarterback this spring, slimming down and growing up as he goes into his second season as the full-time starter.
The Scarlet Knights have some of their answers on defense, too, with Steve Longa and Kevin Snyder joining Jamal Merrell as starting linebackers, and converted back/receiver Jeremy Deering showing major promise at safety.
Down the road at Temple, the Owls appear to have a new starting quarterback and new H-back as they transition into a more pro-style set. Connor Reilly had a huge spring, and his rise from No. 3 on the depth chart a season ago was one of the most surprising stories across the league. The guy he replaces, Chris Coyer, had a great spring at H-back and seems set there.
Over at SMU, the Mustangs got everything they expected out of junior college transfer Traylon Shead and Prescott Line. They are both tasked with replacing Zach Line in the backfield. SMU also made some big national headlines when it hired Hal Mumme, giving the Mustangs two men credited with many of the offensive innovations we have seen over the past two decades both in college and pro football.
UCF may have received the most clarity of all: The Knights had their postseason ban overturned, making them eligible for a bowl game in 2013. This is a major achievement considering how rare it is for a team to win an appeal with the NCAA. Add in Year 1 in a new conference, and the Knights have a BCS berth to play for this fall.
Now, for those still searching for some answers:
USF turned in an offensive clunker in its spring game, with no running back averaging more than 3 yards per carry and no quarterback emerging as the starter. Does Willie Taggart have the personnel needed to run the smashmouth style he wants in Year 1?
Cincinnati also had to get used to a new coach and coordinators but still has some uncertainty at quarterback. Though coach Tommy Tuberville says Brendon Kay has a slight edge, he is keeping the competition between Kay and Munchie Legaux open this offseason.
Houston closed spring ball with quarterback David Piland atop the depth chart, but that doesn't mean he is guaranteed the starting job. Junior college transfer Billy Cosh and freshmen John O'Korn and Greg Ward arrive this summer, and they will be in the mix to push Piland for the starting job.
Louisville, of course, has no such quarterback concerns, as Teddy Bridgewater is back. He and his Cardinals will deal with expectations this program has not had since perhaps 2007. That season, Louisville began the year ranked No. 10 in the preseason AP poll.
It's a good bet that Louisville will be a top-10 team when the preseason begins again. Bridgewater did nothing to change that this spring, going 16 of 20 for 214 yards and two touchdowns in the spring game. He's already in midseason form.
That's good news for the Cardinals. And bad for everybody else's hopes this season.
What we learned this spring
1. This is still Louisville's conference. The Cardinals earned the Big East's BCS bowl bid last season, upset (and routed) heavily favored Florida in the Sugar Bowl and should only be better in Year 4 of the Charlie Strong era. (Or, perhaps more appropriately, Year 3 of the Teddy Bridgewater era.) The mild-mannered quarterback has appeared near the top of virtually every preseason Heisman Trophy list and early 2014 mock drafts, but first things first: Closing the Cardinals' run in the soon-to-be American Athletic Conference on a strong note. To the program, it may mean perfect season or bust, as little stands in the way on the 2013 slate.
2. QB battles are all over. There is Bridgewater, there is UCF's Blake Bortles and there is Rutgers' Gary Nova, but clarity has been otherwise hard to come by under center in the conference. Tommy Tuberville has let Brendon Kay and Munchie Legaux slug it out this spring at Cincinnati, Jacob Karam is trying to fend off Paxton Lynch and Eric Mathews at Memphis, and Willie Taggart has given Bobby Eveld the slight edge over Matt Floyd going into the summer at USF. Temple (Connor Reilly) and Houston (David Piland) don't have sure things at No. 1 just yet, either.
3. Newcomers are looking to make mark. UCF leads the pack of four new schools in the conference, and it may just be the team with the best shot of knocking Louisville from the top. Coach George O'Leary says that's the goal for a team that won 10 games in 2012 and plays the toughest nonconference slate of any Big East team in 2013. Houston boasts arguably the most talented receiving corps in the league and returns nearly its entire defense. And SMU has brought Hal Mumme into the mix to help Garrett Gilbert and the offense, while Memphis looks to build off a strong finish to 2012 (three straight wins and its best season since 2008).
Best of the Big East
Best spring game performance: Blake Bortles showed why he is, as of now, the second-best quarterback in the conference despite being a newcomer. It may have been against just the second- and third-team defenses, but the UCF signal-caller completed 18 of 24 passes for 276 yards and two touchdowns in UCF's spring game April 13. Bortles connected on 10 straight throws at one point. After throwing for 3,059 yards with 25 touchdowns and just seven picks a season ago, this was exactly what the Knights' staff wanted to see out of the redshirt junior.
Best overall spring: Jumping from fourth to first on the depth chart over the course of 15 practices will get you this honor, especially when it is at the most important position on the field. Connor Reilly did just that at Temple, leaping over last season's starters, Chris Coyer and Clinton "Juice" Granger, and emerging as the front-runner heading into the fall. Having played football and baseball last season, Reilly dominated this spring, capping it with a 25-for-41, 366-yard, four-touchdown performance in the Cherry & White spring game. Coyer and former quarterback Kevin Newsome are now both H-backs in the Owls' offense.
Best spring comeback: Dominique Brown missed all of the 2012 season with an MCL tear, but he received No. 1 reps at running back this spring for Louisville. With Senorise Perry recovering from an ACL tear from the 2012 season and Jeremy Wright no longer enrolled in classes, Brown made the most of the opportunity, as the converted quarterback received a majority of the work in the backfield and starred in the spring game, rushing for 79 yards and two touchdowns on just nine carries. He scored four times in a scrimmage one week earlier, too.
Best addition: Tommy Tuberville landed his first major recruit at Cincinnati in securing a pledge from Notre Dame quarterback transfer Gunner Kiel, but Kiel will have to sit out this season. So coach Tony Levine gets to brag about this honor in Houston after the Cougars landed Markeith Ambles, who will be eligible to play this fall. The former high school All-American spent one season at USC and another at Arizona Western College. ESPN.com's No. 23 overall player in the Class of 2010, Ambles will team up with Deontay Greenberry to form what should be the conference's most lethal receiving duo.
Best performance by a transfer: He may have had just two tackles and one sack in the spring game, but Aaron Lynch has done exactly what he has needed to this spring at USF. The former Notre Dame defensive end and freshman All-American from 2011 is finally eligible and, frankly, is a pass-rushing talent of the kind this conference has not seen in some time. He has been described as unblockable this spring, and it will be a surprise if he is not near the top of the conference's sack leaderboard by the end of 2013. (He had 5.5 in his first and only year with the Irish.)
Players to watch
Post-spring power rankings
1. Louisville: The Cardinals did nothing this spring that would have warranted a move out of the top spot. With Teddy Bridgewater and a majority of their starters back, you see why expectations are rising.
2. Cincinnati: The Bearcats should be excellent at linebacker and on the offensive line, two big reasons why they should again be one of the best in the league.
3. Rutgers: The improvement Gary Nova showed this spring should allow Rutgers to remain one of the top teams in the league, even as the defense rebuilds.
5. USF: The next four teams fall under the same category. The Bulls have a chance to rebound under Willie Taggart thanks to what should be a much-improved front seven. Offensive issues remain.
6. Houston: The Cougars have some stout receivers, a great running back in Charles Sims and just about everybody back on defense. But about the quarterback
7. SMU: Though the Mustangs lost more starters than anybody in the league, they should be able to run the ball again behind Traylon Shead and Prescott Line. The addition of Hal Mumme should help quarterback Garrett Gilbert, too.
8. Connecticut: The Huskies dropped another spot because there are more questions on this team than just about any in the league. Will the offensive line be better? Will Chandler Whitmer improve? Where is the depth at running back? And how does the defense deal with losing four NFL picks?
9. Temple: We believe coach Matt Rhule will get the Owls back in the win column, but the forecast for Year 1 is murky due to a complete revamp in scheme and offensive philosophy.
10. Memphis: The Tigers built momentum in the second half of last season, but they are not going to have the depth or physicality to challenge right out of the gate in their first year in a new league.
Cincinnati: George Winn is gone so who is going to get his carries? For more on the Bearcats, click here
Connecticut: UConn has major holes to fill all over its defense. For more on the Huskies, click here
Louisville: Shoring up Teddy Bridgewater's blind side was the No. 1 goal this spring. For more on the Cardinals, click here
Houston: The addition of Markeith Ambles gives Houston the best group of WRs in the league. For more on the Cougars, click here
Memphis: Memphis will not name a starting QB until fall camp. For more on the Tigers, click here
Rutgers: Savon Huggins delivered this spring in getting the bulk of the carries. For more on the Scarlet Knights, click here
SMU: Finding another pass-rush specialist takes on greater importance in a new league. For more on the Mustangs, click here
Temple: Running backs remain a concern following a couple of losses. For more on the Owls, click here
UCF: A big question that remains is who starts at field corner. For more on the Knights, click here
USF: Willie Taggart wants his team to be more physical on both sides of the ball. For more on the Bulls, click here