Bobby Petrino’s on his second tour in Louisville, but he’s facing a whole new challenge.
The Cardinals will make their ACC debut hosting Miami on Labor Day this September. Before Petrino’s coaching career jumped on a roller-coaster, he guided Louisville to nine wins or better each of his four seasons – successor Charlie Strong carrying that on with 11 and 12-win years before heading to Texas.
Humbled, to a degree, by some newsworthy events – Petrino used Western Kentucky as a one-year stepping stone back to the bigs.
“It's great to be back in Louisville,” Petrino said on this week’s ACC teleconference. “I'm really enjoying my time back here, and my family is really excited about it. I was really happy with the way we went through spring ball. We had a football team that really came out with a lot of effort, their willingness to learn new schemes, and we have some good leadership within our team, so that really helps a lot.
“We have a long way to go. We're not close to where we need to be to open the season September 1, but with the attitude and work ethic that we have on the team, I'm excited about where we can get to as a football team.”
This isn’t the Big East, however, his Cards stepping into the toughest division in the ACC.
Florida State and Clemson are the only conference teams to win nine or more games each of the last three seasons. The Seminoles, of course, are coming off a national championship run and return Heisman Trophy winner Jameis Winston. Clemson and Florida State are 5-1 in bowl games over the last three seasons, downing four top-15 teams.
Oh, and they are only teams in the ACC to have top-20-ranked recruiting classes each of the last four seasons – top-10 currently for 2015.
In those same ranks, the Cardinals are 84th with one ’15 commit and have a No. 39 four-year average.
Petrino believes he has the foundation to “go in and compete.”
“I think it's very similar to when I came in before and took over for John L. Smith,” he said. “It's a program that's pretty well set and has great leadership. But now it's time to go to the next level, and going into the ACC and the challenge that that presents with the schedule and in recruiting, it's exciting for all of us.”
“It'll be fun. It'll be fun to have to prepare real hard each game and most of the games I feel will go into the fourth quarter, and you're going to have to be in great condition and have good depth and be able to win some tough games in the fourth quarter.”
The Cards took a hit when junior quarterback Teddy Bridgewater declared for the NFL draft, taking his near 10,000 career passing yards with 72 touchdowns with him.
Sophomore Will Gardner, who played with Clemson’s Maverick Morris in high school (Coffee Co.), was tabbed as the heir apparent this spring.
“He's a guy that's 6-5,” Petrino said. “I'm going to keep him under 230 pounds because we feel like he'll be more agile and be able to move. But he's very competitive. He certainly has the respect and the trust of all his teammates and can make the different throws and move in the pocket and do the things we want to do.”
Gardner will have ’13 leading rusher Dominique Brown back (825 yards/8 TDs) – and Clemson might get a second-look at former Auburn tailback Michael Dyer, who’s struggled to carve out playing time so far in Louisville. He rushed for 151 yards and two touchdowns the last time he played in Death Valley (38-24 Clemson win in 2011).
Gardner also has Bridgewater’s top target last season – 6-3 senior DeVante Parker, who averaged 16.1 per catch for 885 yards and 12 touchdowns.
Louisville returns four starters from a defense that finished No. 1 in total and No. 2 in scoring defense nationally. They are now under the tutelage of former Georgia defensive coordinator Todd Grantham. In the opener last year, Clemson put up the third-most yards (467) and points (38) on his Bulldogs’ D.
After the Miami opener, the Cardinals also host Wake Forest, N.C. State and Florida State (10/30).
They come to Clemson on Oct. 11 and also go to Virginia, Syracuse and Boston College.
“I think it's really exciting for our fans to be able to see the home schedule that we're going to have and be able to bring teams in here like Florida State, Miami and North Carolina State, and also the excitement of where our road games are going to be,” Petrino said. “I think it's what our fans have wanted for a long time, and now it's here.”