This is it. Victor Anderson's last chance.
Three years after bursting onto the scene with a 1,047-yard, eight touchdown season that made him the first Louisville player to earn Big East Rookie of the Year honors, Anderson enters his senior season aiming to prove he's no one-hit wonder.
If he succeeds, it could provide a major lift to both the Cardinals and a conference light on star tailbacks following a mass exodus.
"It's kind of like coach [Charlie] Strong coming in rebuilding the program [last season]," Anderson said. "That's kind of what I'm working with."
Anderson knows a comeback won't be easy following two disappointing, injury plagued seasons. He suffered groin, knee and shoulder injuries as a sophomore, limiting him to eight games. A year after five 100-yard games, he managed just one, finishing the season with 473 yards and five scores before undergoing season-ending surgery on a separated shoulder. He played more games (10) as a junior, but his injuries allowed senior Bilal Powell to seize the starting role, and Anderson posted career lows with 64 carries, 286 yards and zero touchdowns.
With his injuries becoming a trend, Anderson admits he often wondered when he'd get hurt again.
"I think [in the past] I've kind of had that on my mind going into the season and that's probably why I had a little setback," Anderson said. "But I can't think about that. I have to go into training camp with the mindset that I'm going to be healthy the entire season and just come out and play football."
So far, so good. For the first time in two years, Anderson made it through spring practice without any setbacks. He looked every bit his old self in the spring game, rushing for 72 yards and two touchdowns on six carries, including a 58-yard scoring run. It was exactly the kind of productivity the Cardinals had been looking for.
"The biggest thing that he's done is that he's proved to us over the course of spring practice and the offseason that he can stay healthy and not have to get out of participating in practice because of physical constraints," said running backs coach Terry Carter. "We needed to see that."
The Cardinals have made it known they're going to run the ball, then run it some more. "That's a big part of what we do, regardless of circumstances," Carter said. In Strong's first season he took a unit that was last in the Big East in rushing yards per game (125.1) and turned it into the conference's best with a power running game that delivered 174.9 yards per game and 4.8 per carry.
But that was largely due to Powell's production. Now that he's exhausted his eligibility, the trick is doing it again. Complicating matters further, Louisville will be working with a yet-to-be-named first-year starting quarterback and a line that's replacing four starters alongside Remington Award candidate Mario Benavides.
Anderson is sure to get plenty of touches, but Carter stressed that the senior will not take nearly 50 percent of the carries as he did during his freshman year. "That's not how we operate," Carter said.
Louisville's backfield boasts another runner with big-play ability in Jeremy Wright, who averaged 5.5 yards per carry and ranked fifth in the FBS in kickoff return yardage (30.5 per) as a freshman. Together, Anderson and Wright give the Cards a potentially potent 1-2 punch. But their success will hinge on whether Anderson can put his immediate past behind him and return to lead-back form.
"Now that he's healthy, I think that he feels physically and mentally ready to get back to the level that he was his freshman year," Carter said. "Really, in fact, he's even better because he's stronger; he's stronger mentally, he's stronger physically, so he has the ability to step up and be a major contributor and I think he's going to do that."
If he can stay on the field, Anderson could also provide a much-needed boost to the Big East's stable of running backs.
Gone are the likes of Jordan Todman, Delone Carter, Dion Lewis and Noel Devine, leaving the league with just one 1,000-yard rusher from a year ago in Cincinnati's Isaiah Pead (1,029 yards), and only one other back who posted more than 554 yards in Pitt's Ray Graham (922).
Some new faces could make a splash. South Florida welcomes Darrell Scott, the Colorado transfer and former No. 2 overall recruit in the class of 2008, and Dontae Aycock, the Auburn transfer and former four-star prospect, while Rutgers adds Savon Huggins, a heralded in-state recruit who rushed for 1,891 yards and 35 touchdowns at St. Peter's Prep (Jersey City).
But it's difficult to find a more intriguing candidate than Anderson, a proven commodity, albeit one surrounded by questions.
Can he stay healthy? Can he return to his freshman form? The answers will come. For now, Anderson isn't letting the uncertainty cloud his preparation.
"I'm not going to doubt myself, and I'm not going to doubt my teammates," Anderson said. "I'm always going to have faith."