Recruiting report: Sizing up Louisville's class before Signing Day with Mark Ennis
Throughout the offseason, Campus Union will talk with a few team experts to go over some of the most intriguing storylines and questions in advance of the 2014 campaign. First up is Louisville. Charlie Strong is now at Texas, and Bobby Petrino is back on the sideline. The Cardinals are set to play in their debut season in the ACC, and they're learning that life changes tend to come in bunches.
SI caught up with Mark Ennis of SB Nation and ESPN 680 in Louisville to get a closer look at things in Papa John's Land, discussing everything from the impact of the coaching change on recruiting to the competition to replace Teddy Bridgewater under center.
SI: Well, National Signing Day is breathing down our necks, and one of the more compelling programs in college football is Louisville. Coming off a big win over Miami in the Russell Athletic Bowl, the Cardinals have a shiny new conference and a new (well, kind of) coach in toe. What are things like in the 'Ville?
Mark Ennis: Honestly, there's really a little bit of every feeling among locals right now. There's a ton of excitement about the schedule for next year. There's a lot of excitement about the style of play that Petrino will bring back with him. (Louisville fans will endure a lot if the team is fun to watch.) There's a lot of worry about how recruiting is going in the initial aftermath of the coaching change. We're up to eight kids who were committed to Louisville changing their minds since Petrino was hired shortly after Strong took the Texas job. So there's some nervousness around that.
SI: Are the recruits leaving for any particular reason? Who are the biggest losses? Any prospects on the radar to indicate Louisville could trade quality for quality?
ME: I think any time you have a coaching change you will lose kids simply because many of them committed solely because of the relationship they had with an assistant or head coach. In Louisville's case, I think an abnormally high number of kids wanted to play for [Strong] specifically, and his leaving really made Louisville not much of an option. The biggest losses are in the trenches, where offensive lineman Lukayus McNeil and defensive linemen Chris Nelson and Poona Ford all decommitted, though Louisville is still pursuing McNeil. At receiver, Louisville lost the commitments of Isaiah Ford and George Rushing, but still has a decent chance of getting both back.
SI: And don't forget about the guy who ended up committing to Wake Forest!
ME: Ah yes, and Rashawn Shaw, a really nice defensive end that dumped Louisville on Wednesday night. Needless to say it's been a tough transition.
SI: Going through tweets and comments, however, it seems as though a lot of the current players seem excited about Petrino. That's really the more important thing in the short term, right? Obviously Strong's departure this close to Signing Day hurts, but at least there isn't a mass exodus of guys already on campus.
ME: Yeah, I have actually been really surprised at the response [Petrino] got from the current players. I really thought they would be very skeptical of him, considering his reputation and the way many of them felt betrayed by Charlie leaving the way that he did. But I think [athletic director] Tom Jurich wanted someone with some chutzpah to be able to carry the locker room because, ironically, it was the weakness of [former Cardinals coach] Steve Kragthorpe in a locker room of Petrino players that led to Louisville's struggles from 2007-09.
SI: Are there any guys Petrino has been pursuing who could make up for the loss of some other commits? Who are the likely candidates? Who are the longshots?
ME: I think we've seen in the past few days that some of the assistants, like [running backs coach] Kolby Smith and [defensive coordinator] Todd Grantham, have gone after kids they know from their previous stops. So, a running back like Marlon Mack out of Florida, who was committed to UCLA, is now strongly considering Louisville. Grantham has reached out to several defensive commits to Georgia and at least has Louisville in the door with defensive end Grant Harris. New receivers coach Lamar Thomas has been all over south Florida and has made some progress with current Georgia commit Gilbert Johnson and 6-foot-5 receiver Kendrick Edwards as well.
SI: The Grantham move was a head-scratcher at first, if only because of how much Georgia struggled defensively last season. A million dollars for an assistant most Bulldogs fans wanted out anyway? What's the rationale there? Pay more to draw away a respected SEC coordinator?
ME: Well, in his introductory press conference, Petrino said he really liked Grantham because he found him challenging to scheme against from the time he was at Arkansas. So I think that was the draw. As for the big bump in pay, I think Louisville badly wants to project stability and the idea that these coaches will be here for a long time. So I think the raise was to get Grantham to commit to multiple years. People forget that while Georgia fans didn't necessarily love him, he was sought after by the NFL every offseason.
SI: And he's an SEC guy with current high school contacts, which should help a great deal in the transition to the ACC and recruiting in the area.
ME: Yeah, I'm not sure people appreciate just how big of a talent producer the state of Georgia is now. It's better than Pennsylvania and Ohio. So to be plugged in there is only a good thing. Add to it that Louisville added two Florida guys who are pretty well known in Thomas and [cornerbacks coach] Terrell Buckley, and it certainly seems like Petrino tried to staff with his own recruiting limitations in mind.
SI: Buckley came from Akron. When I was at MAC Media Day last summer, Terry Bowden raved about him. He's a former Florida State player and assistant, and if Louisville wants to be a player in the years to come, it's going to have to hit Florida hard. Speaking about this year for the Cards, what are some names in 2014 that college football fans need to have on their radar before Signing Day?
ME: Louisville really likes safety Michael Johnson, who has stayed committed through the coaching change and can be a bigger safety in Grantham's system. Running back L.J. Scott is a really big running back who enrolled in January and will almost assuredly redshirt, but is a huge kid who will look a whole lot like Michael Bush in the red and black again. And Petrino inherited a local four-star, really athletic quarterback in Reggie Bonnafon, from the same high school that produced Brian Brohm. So he will bring some talent in with him from day one.
SI: Is Bonnafon the guy to ultimately take up the mantle from the departed Bridgewater? Or are others in the mix?
ME: I think the immediate heir will be redshirt sophomore Will Gardner. Physically, Gardner is in the Tyler Wilson/Ryan Mallett mold. He's 6-5, 230 pounds. Can really throw the ball. But he's torn [up] the same knee twice and needs a lot of experience. He'll be in a spring battle with redshirt freshman Kyle Bolin, a kid from Lexington who we've not had a chance to see much. Bonnafon is the long-term guy, though, in my opinion. He's very mobile and throws the ball with a lot of velocity. He just needs experience playing quarterback.
SI: As a whole, how is the roster shaping up relative to other ACC teams? With the schedule now set, how excited should Cardinals fans be for this fall?
ME: I think Louisville is still a rung below Clemson and Florida State, but really, who isn't? I do think the Cardinals have ACC-caliber players in spots. At receiver, running back, linebacker and defensive line, they should be able to hang right away. Ironically, because Petrino has such a good track record offensively, I feel better about Louisville next year than I think I would have had Strong stayed, because I think Petrino will handle things post-Bridgewater better than the team would have otherwise.