Few programs have fed top-tier talent into the NFL pipeline quite like Louisville in recent seasons.
Former coach Charlie Strong's recruiting and player development paid major dividends in establishing Louisville as a destination for pro scouts, as 14 Cardinals have been drafted over the past two years, including first-round picks Calvin Pryor, Marcus Smith, Teddy Bridgewater and DeVante Parker. Big shoes need to be filled if Louisville is going to compete with the likes of Clemson and Florida State for ACC superiority.
"We're proud of the fact that we had 10 guys drafted (in the 2014 draft), another four or five free agents," second-year head coach Bobby Petrino said. "But the fact of the matter is we had 23 seniors, we had three juniors that came out early. That's a lot of players to replace."
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The following five names will play a pivotal role in that replacement process:
Sheldon Rankins, DE, Senior
With most of a highly productive secondary gone, defensive coordinator Todd Grantham will be looking for even more pressure on opposing quarterbacks in 2015. The Cardinals lost linebackers Lorenzo Mauldin and Deiontrez Mount and end B.J. Dubose (15.5 combined sacks), but the defense still returns the vast majority of its front seven contributors -- most importantly Rankins, who led the team with 13.5 tackles for loss and eight sacks in his first season under Grantham.
A 6-foot-2, 303-pound load in a 3-4 front, Rankins was all over the place last season. He added on to his pressure numbers by logging two interceptions and a forced fumble. The fact that he'll be back alongside the likes of nose tackle DeAngelo Brown and linebackers Keith Kelsey and James Burgess should help matters.
"Obviously I bang the table for my abilities every day. Without those guys, I wouldn't be able to do the things I do," Rankins said. "If I was the only guy out there able to make plays, you know, those guys would be coming free because they wouldn't be worried about them. Those guys go out there and do their job as well. It makes it easier on me. I'm able to go out there sometimes and get one-on-ones, I'm able to capitalize on those."
Louisville finished 11th nationally in sacks last season, which certainly contributed to its high turnover rate, and with continuity and some new additions (more on that in a minute) it looks like Petrino's offense will be backed up by a top-30 defense once again.
Brandon Radcliff, RB, Junior
The 5-foot-9 bowling ball of a running back did not enter last season as the projected starter -- seniors Dominique Brown and Michael Dyer were more productive in 2013 -- but when given the opportunity he proved to be the offense's best option. As a sophomore, he nearly eclipsed the combined yardage of the Dyer-Brown combo in 62 fewer carries.
In 144 rushing attempts, Radcliff racked up 737 yards and 12 touchdowns. If his workload increases (not guaranteed), he could become Louisville's first 1,000-yard rusher since Bilal Powell in 2010.
"The reason that Brandon came on and took over the position is how he worked in practice, how hard he went, how hard he went every time he touched the ball. He'd run it in the end zone," Petrino said. "Just his work ethic gave us an opportunity to say, 'Hey, we need to get this guy on the field.' Then he learned how to protect the quarterback, how to pick up blitzes, not only who his responsibility was, but the technique to get it done. That allows him to play more."
(One potential issue: The offensive line is replacing four starters that combined for 158 career starts. That unit, which was already problematic last season, is perhaps the biggest unknown for the Cardinals.)
Petrino's offense has made its mark through sophisticated passing attacks that pretty much guarantee eight-win seasons, but he's not opposed to riding a workhorse running back. In two of his past four seasons on the sidelines, Petrino's offenses have had two feature backs eclipse the 1,300-yard plateau: Arkansas' Knile Davis in 2010 and Western Kentucky's Antonio Andrews in 2013.
Radcliff could make it three in five years.
Devonte Fields, LB/DE, Junior
The circumstances that led the former Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year to Louisville are unfortunate, and his inclusion on the Cardinals' roster has not come without controversy or criticism.
Fields, a former top recruit that developed into one of the top defensive players in college football as a freshman in 2012, was previously involved in an alleged domestic violence incident with an ex-girlfriend -- a situation that resulted in a misdemeanor assault charge (later dropped after Fields completed an anger management course) and led to his dismissal from TCU.
After a year at Trinity Valley Community College, where he became a consensus top-10 JUCO recruit, Fields is back in major college football.
"We've established that he's going to have to do everything right when he's on campus with us," Petrino said of Fields in an ESPN appearance. "We have some standards that are set for him, and he's going to have to abide by those standards."
If he's on the field, though, he's going to be a factor in what is shaping to be an excellent front seven with Rankins & Co.
Fields completed his standout 2012 season with 10 sacks and 18.5 tackles for loss against top competition. There's a reason he's considered one of the top draft prospects on Louisville's roster. The 6-foot-4, 250-pound outside linebacker/defensive end should be able to post similar numbers in Grantham's high-pressure scheme.
James Quick, WR, Junior
DeVante Parker was a terror for opposing defensive backs last season. Though he missed six games due to injury, the 2015 first-round NFL draft pick still led the Cardinals in receiving yards for the third straight season while averaging a career-high 122.1 yards per game despite inconsistent quarterback play.
Someone needs to pick up the slack left behind by Parker's 855 yards and five touchdowns, not to mention the losses of receivers Eli Rogers and Kai De La Cruz (116 combined receptions) and starting tight end Gerald Christian.
Fortunately for Louisville's coaching staff, there are plenty of options -- starting with James Quick.
The 6-foot-2 former blue-chip recruit's collegiate career got off to a slow start, but he was the team's No. 2 option in 2014 (566 yards, 3 TDs) and he's the most logical choice to be the Cardinals No. 1 threat this fall. He doesn't possess Parker's size, but Quick is a speedster -- he was a state champion sprinter in high school -- that should be able to open things up from the slot position for Petrino's passing attack.
Quick is going to have some competition, though. Transfer Ja'Quay Savage (formerly Ja'Quay Williams) was a big-time Texas A&M recruit before getting lost in the shuffle of five- and four-star talent compiled by Kevin Sumlin's Aggies staff, and the incoming freshmen -- rangy wideouts Devante Peete, Emonee Spence and Jaylen Smith and slot option Traveon Samuel -- could immediately challenge for playing time.
The Cardinals also added transfers Jamari Staples (UAB) and one-time Tennessee commit Alphonso Carter (formerly Paul Harris) to the receiving corps.
All in all, if the quarterback play holds up, Louisville receivers are going to put up numbers.
Will Gardner/Reggie Bonnafon/Kyle Bolin, QB
It was an up-and-down ride last season for the Cardinals at quarterback, and those three names above might not be the only ones in the running for the 2015 starting job. The fact that Louisville still finished in the top-50 nationally in offensive efficiency is yet another tribute to Petrino's undeniable success at putting points on the board.
Junior Will Gardner dealt with injuries but led the team with 1,669 yards and 12 touchdowns and was much better at taking care of the ball. Sophomores Reggie Bonnafon and Kyle Bolin were, for obvious reasons, more streaky but each showed flashes in limited playing time. Bonnafon was easily the most athletic option for the Cardinals -- he rushed for 316 yards and five touchdowns, adding another dimension to Louisville's attack -- but he also completed the lowest percentage of his passes (50.8) in an offense designed to open up passing lanes.
Throw in Penn State transfer Tyler Ferguson and incoming four-star recruit Lamar Jackson, neither of whom are expected to play at the moment, and the Cardinals have plenty of options without one clear-cut choice.
For now, the options are splitting time in practice.
"They go out on the field and they're starving for reps. That's the one thing you worry about, is having enough reps. But we practice at a very high pace, a very fast tempo. We feel like there's enough reps," Petrino said. "Obviously I feel like we'll need to have a starter two weeks before the opener. Hopefully we can get that done. But I feel like they're going to make each other better."
As previously mentioned, an offensive line that played poorly last season is now replacing four starters, which could play a factor in either the QB race or its winner's success. Louisville allowed 40 sacks (tied for 113th nationally) last season, and if the line doesn't offer more help in 2015 then backfield improvements may not be recognizable.
Still, if Louisville finds more production and consistency (and protection) at quarterback this season, it's going to help mask the holes left behind by the NFL departures.