Louisville's last (and first) season in the American Athletic Conference could be a memorable one. While the Cardinals lost two Big East games last season, including an inexplicable setback to UConn, they drilled Florida in the Sugar Bowl and head into the 2013 season with high expectations fueled by the most talented roster in the league. Junior quarterback Teddy Bridgewater has the potential to be the No. 1 pick in the 2014 NFL Draft, and there are four or five other Cardinals who could go in the top three rounds next May.
The Cardinals didn't have a player selected in the 2013 draft, but fourth-year coach Charlie Strong and his staff have recruited well the past few seasons, and it will be a while before Louisville is shut out in the draft again. The Cardinals don't have a discernible weakness and the non-conference schedule is a joke. An unbeaten regular season is a distinct possibility, which would mean a second consecutive BCS bowl berth and a huge wave of momentum as the Cardinals head to the ACC next season.
Top senior prospects
SS Hakeem Smith: Smith (6-foot-1, 179 pounds) redshirted as a true freshman in 2009 and has started all but one game since. Despite a lack of bulk, Smith spends a lot of time as an in-the-box safety. He is a sure tackler and a big hitter. Smith runs well and has a high football IQ. He has just one career interception, but does have 17 pass breakups. His lack of bulk is a concern, but he plays with a fearless attitude.
ILB Preston Brown: Brown (6-2, 260) is heading into his third season as the starter at middle linebacker. He had a team-high 109 tackles last season and is a physical force against the run. Brown is a big hitter who especially thrives when the play is in front of him. He's a bulky guy and not that comfortable in space. His coverage ability is a question.
WR Damian Copeland: He had not done much as a Cardinal before blossoming last season. Copeland (6-1, 182) had battled injuries earlier in his career, but stayed healthy in 2012 and responded with a team-leading 50 receptions for 628 yards and two TDs. (He is a Florida native, and both of his scores came against schools from his home state: One against USF and the other against Florida in the Sugar Bowl.) He has excellent speed -- he has been clocked at 4.4 seconds in the 40-yard dash -- and if healthy this season he becomes an intriguing prospect.
DE Marcus Smith: He was a high school quarterback in Columbus, Ga., but didn't project as a college quarterback. He was a linebacker as a true freshman with the Cardinals in 2010, then moved to end the next spring. Smith was 6-3 and 210 pounds when he signed and now measures 6-3 and 252. He's still learning the intricacies of the position, but does possess a quick first step and some pass-rush ability. He likely could be an outside linebacker in a 3-4 scheme.
FB B.J. Butler: His versatility makes him an intriguing prospect. Butler (6-2, 274) spent his first two seasons with the Cardinals as a defensive end, making seven starts. He played end, defensive tackle, tight end and fullback last season, and seemingly has settled in at fullback. He's strong and runs well, and has a high upside at fullback if he ever truly settles in.
QB Teddy Bridgewater: Is he the most highly rated draftable quarterback? To some, the answer is "yes." Bridgewater (6-3, 196) lacks bulk -- at times, you'd swear he was a stick figure standing in the pocket -- but he's a tough guy with good mechanics and a big arm. While he doesn't like to run, he does a nice job of sliding his feet in the pocket. In addition, past and current coaches and teammates rave about his leadership qualities. Bridgewater definitely seems to have the "it" factor. He threw for 3,718 yards, 27 touchdowns and eight picks last season, and owns a career completion percentage of 66.9 on 715 attempts. As a redshirt freshman in 2011 he threw 12 picks as a first-time starter, but showed vast improvement in his decision-making last season.
WR DeVante Parker: Coaches were expecting a breakout year for Parker, a Louisville native, last season as a sophomore, and it happened -- to an extent. He was a first-team All-Big East selection with 10 touchdowns and averaged 18.7 yards per catch. But on a receiver-rich team, he had "only" 40 receptions. Parker (6-3, 209) has excellent size, and though he doesn't have elite speed, he is quick and can get off press coverage. He needs to learn to use his size better and become a better-rounded receiver.
FS Calvin Pryor: He teams with Smith to give Louisville perhaps the most physical safety duo in the nation. Pryor (6-2, 208) became a starter midway through his true freshman season in 2011. He is a big hitter (seven forced fumbles) who could become better in coverage. He has four picks and 10 pass breakups in his career. Pryor isn't a blazer but covers a lot of ground. He might be best suited for strong safety at the next level.
OT Jamon Brown: He is a Louisville native who signed as a defensive tackle out of high school. Brown's first playing time came at that position as a true freshman in 2011, but he moved to the other side of the ball, at guard, midway through that season. Brown (6-5, 350), who has gained 40 pounds since arriving on campus, started all 13 games at right tackle last season. There's a chance he starts at left tackle this fall. He still is learning how to be a tackle, but he is a powerful guy who is a road-grader in the running game. If he continues to make the type of strides he made last season, he will be an NFL tackle -- probably on the right side -- relatively soon.
LB Keith Brown: Brown was a national recruit out of Miami Norland High and began to live up to the billing last fall as a true freshman. He started five games and finished fifth on the team with 57 tackles. He runs well and has good instincts. While Brown (6-1, 235) is starting at outside linebacker this season, he could move inside to replace Preston Brown (no relation) next season.
TE Gerald Christian: He transferred from Florida after the 2011 season, sat out last season and now is projected to start. Christian (6-3, 242) is a good athlete who felt he was underutilized as a receiver at Florida. He is a solid blocker who looks to have the needed speed to occasionally get deep. Given the plethora of weapons at Louisville, Christian figures to be a secondary option, but he still could catch 25-plus passes and be important in the red zone.
Three must-see games of 2013
Oct. 10 vs. Rutgers: On paper, these are the two most talented teams in the AAC and this game could determine the league titlist -- and the league's final automatic BCS bid. Rutgers WR Brandon Coleman will pose problems for Louisville's safeties. And Rutgers' veteran offensive line will look to control Louisville's linebacking Browns.
Oct. 26 at South Florida: A multitude of top Cardinals players -- Bridgewater, Butler, Copeland, Christian, Keith Brown and Pryor among them -- are Florida natives, so this will be a chance to impress the home folks. Jamon Brown will be going against USF defensive ends Aaron Lynch and Ryne Giddens, which should make for some good battles.
Dec. 5 at Cincinnati: This is the regular-season finale, and if everything breaks exactly right for Louisville, the Cardinals will be looking to finish off an unbeaten season. Cincy's talented offensive line, featuring guard Austen Bujnoch and tackle Eric Lefeld, could make things difficult for Smith, as well as Louisville's linebackers. Cincy's Deven Drane should be one of the best corners in the AAC, so he could cause Bridgewater some problems.