Despite returning 10 starters from last year’s squad, the No. 25 Cardinals remain a young group defensively entering Sunday’s season-opener and Governor’s Cup showdown with Kentucky. One of the deepest and most experienced areas of head coach Charlie Strong’s defense should be the defensive line, which is anchored by junior tackle Brandon Dunn. He is joined on the depth chart by junior tackle Roy Philon, junior end Marcus Smith and sophomore end B.J. Dubose.
“Our strength should be up front,” said Cardinals’ defensive coordinator Vance Bedford, now in his third season on the job. “We have a lot of depth up front for the first time since we’ve been here. We’re looking for those guys to step up and make some plays. We’re bigger, we’re faster and we’re stronger. Hopefully, on game day, that shows, but we don’t know that yet because they’re still young.”
The Cardinals will face a less experienced offensive line for the Wildcats with only two returning starters. Leading the way up front for UK are senior guard Larry Warford, a two-time All-SEC selection, and two-year starting center Matt Smith.
“We treat every offensive line the same,” said Dunn, a Louisville native who has started 12 games the last two seasons. “We give them respect. We know we have to go out there and execute.”
Despite a lot of new faces on offense, the Wildcats have the attention of the Louisville players and coaches. One of the biggest concerns for the Cardinals is who they’ll see under center for Kentucky when the game begins. And how many different players will take snaps at quarterback throughout the afternoon.
“You don’t know what you’re opponent is going to do,” said Bedford. “They could play three quarterbacks. (Morgan) Newton was hurt during spring camp, but now he’s back. You have to prepare for three quarterbacks and that makes it difficult. You have to work on everything. You must have two game plans. Once you know who the quarterback is, then you implement that game plan and let the players go work for you.”
Another key element in Sunday’s game will be managing not only the emotions of a season-opener, but the increased emotions of a rivalry game. In any intense rivalry, the coaches work a delicate balance to be certain players can play both fast and smart.
“In any ballgame, the first five minutes are all about emotion,” Bedford said. “After that, it’s time to settle down and go play football.”
With so many variables in play for the season-opener, the players, coaches and fans should learn a lot about each squad by the time the final horn sounds at Papa John’s Cardinal Stadium. The goal for the Louisville defense is not only to win the game, but to establish more leadership and experience within the talented group.
“We’re still looking to find out what we are on defense. We’re young, but we have young guys with talent,” Bedford said. “We’re going to play extremely hard. We’re looking for leadership. We only have two seniors starting on defense right now and we have to count on those guys to step to the forefront, take these young guys and get them going in the right direction.”