LOUISVILLE, Ky. – It is hard to miss the giant poster of Teddy Bridgewater hanging in the lobby of the Louisville football complex, celebrating the Cardinals’ momentous win over Florida in the Allstate Sugar Bowl two years ago.
Bridgewater's rise was concurrent to the football program’s latest ascent to national prominence, but the truth is he was the most notable player on a defensive-minded football team led by a defensive-minded coach who stressed a physical, ball-control style of football that did not always showcase its talented quarterback.
Nobody will ever say the same about offensive guru Bobby Petrino, who has single-handedly made everything different this spring in his second stint as Louisville's head coach. His philosophy is different. Practices are different. Schemes are different. Strength and conditioning is different. Even conference affiliation is soon to be different.
Petrino says he is different, too, eight years after he left the Cardinals for the NFL. A well-publicized scandal at Arkansas three years ago -- a scandal many thought could end up ruining him -- forced him to get his priorities in order.
He now has his second chance to do right after Tom Jurich gave him a lifeline in January following Charlie Strong’s departure for Texas. Petrino's reputation, however, remains in limbo, putting more pressure on his football acumen. When asked to note how he and the program differ from when he was hired the first time in 2003, Petrino says, “I don’t look at the differences a whole lot. I’m having a great time.”
While Petrino the man needs to be different, Louisville is banking on the same Petrino who initially took Louisville to the heights Strong recently matched. To do that, Petrino is coaching the way he has always coached. Practices are now run at a much faster tempo than under Strong. Petrino is constantly in his players' faces, yelling at them to get it right. All that was quite an adjustment initially. “Hustle!” and “Go faster!” are two key phrases that have returned to the Louisville lexicon.
“At first, everybody was looking around like, ‘What’s going on?’ but for the most part, everybody’s taken it in stride,” said defensive end Sheldon Rankins. “We have gone along with everything he’s saying, and been pretty positive about it because at the end of the day, we’re all a team. We’re all here together and we have to make it work.”
The changes have been especially dramatic on offense, and most especially with the quarterbacks. Bridgewater might have been the centerpiece in Louisville the last three years, but he is gone, and that leaves quite a conundrum. Petrino places much heavier demands on quarterbacks; they have more checks to make, more complicated schemes to learn and different timing routes to perfect with their receivers, all while practicing at a breakneck pace.
No passer on the current roster has started a college game. Will Gardner, who was the backup last year, has taken the lead in the quarterback competition, but the offense has much to improve on before it functions the way Petrino wants it to function. One practice last week lasted 2½ hours, and several practice periods were repeated until the players got everything right.
“They think they’re going fast right now, but we’re not even close to where we need to be,” Petrino said. “My dad gave me a bad time about it. He said, ‘That was the longest practice I’ve ever seen of yours,’ and I said, ‘It’s because we’re not going fast enough to get the reps in.’ We have a set amount of reps we have to get done, but we can’t go quick enough.”
Part of the issue is players not being in the type of condition they need to be in to go at optimum speed. Petrino says players did make strides in winter workouts, but they need a full offseason program to meet the demands that are now required.
Up-tempo offense means the defense has to practice faster, too. Defensive coordinator Todd Grantham, who is installing a new base 3-4 scheme that will feature players used in multiple ways, says, "The tempo thing is very good for both sides of the ball because it makes you think fast, react fast and get ready to play,” adding that the pace of practice also helps create mental toughness.
Not much has happened in the way of rebellion, either. The transition from one staff to another has been as smooth as can be expected, especially given the radical differences between style and scheme. This spring, being different never felt so good.
“Everybody’s excited,” Gardner says. “Everybody knows the history of all these coaches and how successful their teams have been, so everybody’s looking forward to what this year brings.”