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            === Strong building something special with Cardinals ===
 
 By Phil Neuffer, Associate College Football Editor
 
 Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - There weren't many people, perhaps not
 any, that gave Louisville much of a chance in the Sugar Bowl a year ago.
 
 Though the Cardinals were ranked No. 22 in the country, sported a 10-2 record
 and had dominated their league schedule, it was just unthinkable that a team
 from the diluted Big East could hang with a squad from the mighty Southeastern
 Conference.
 
 However that is exactly what happened. In fact not only did Louisville hang
 with then No. 4 Florida, the Cardinals dominated en route to a 33-23 victory.
 It may not have been on the same level as Boise State's upset of Oklahoma in
 the 2005 Fiesta Bowl, but it certainly made a statement.
 
 That statement being that Louisville isn't just a team that can compete for
 Big East titles but possibly national crowns.
 
 Many of the powerhouse teams are led by strong and recognizable coaches. Last
 year was certainly a coming out party for Charlie Strong whose no nonsense
 approach and dedication to the defensive side of the ball was key for
 Louisville.
 
 In his first two seasons at the helm, Strong built a solid foundation by
 guiding Louisville to back-to-back 7-6 seasons and bowl appearances. However
 in 2012 the groundwork laid down in those first two seasons really began to
 pay off as Strong earned the Big East Co-Coach of the Year award.
 
 One of the most important developments in 2012 was the rise of quarterback
 Teddy Bridgewater, who was named the Big East Offensive Player of the Year. In
 just his sophomore season Bridgewater, who is one of the players on the squad
 from Strong's first recruiting class, was unbelievably productive. Bridgewater
 threw for 3,718 yards and 27 touchdowns, completing an impressive 68.5 percent
 of his pass attempts. Each of those numbers were the best since 2007 when
 Brian Brohm was under center for the Cardinals.
 
 Bridgewater is a microcosm for the squad as a whole. Last season he was
 expected to play well but obviously exceeded expectations. Now he enters this
 season on a short list of Heisman candidates and a player many think could be
 taken in the first round of next year's NFL Draft.
 
 It's not just at quarterback that Louisville returns on the offensive side of
 the ball. Strong has said that he believes his receiving corps this year to be
 the strength of the football team.
 
 With a host of dynamic playmakers like Devante Parker (40 receptions, 744
 yards, 10 TDs), Eli Rogers (46 receptions, 505 yards, 4 TDs) and Damian
 Copeland (50 receptions, 628 yards, 2 TDs), Strong's opinion is far from
 unfounded.
 
 "That is every quarterback's dream, ball fetchers," Bridgewater said of the
 litany of weapons he will be throwing to on Saturdays. "Those guys bring
 excitement to the offense."
 
 While the offense certainly has plenty returning, the other side of the field
 also shares in an embarrassment of returning riches. Of the 19 starters
 returning for Louisville, 10 come on the defensive side of the ball.
 
 That type of experience back on the field is a monumental advantage for a team
 that already excelled in slowing teams down last season. Louisville was ranked
 No. 23 in the country in total defense (340.3 ypg) in 2012 and could be even
 better in 2013.
 
 Last season's lead tackler Preston Brown (109 tackles) will be the anchor for
 the unit as Strong indicates his hopes for the senior linebacker to take on a
 more vocal leadership role.
 
 "We expect a lot out of Preston Brown," Strong said. "Preston is a starter and
 has been a starter for three years and I just expect him to now become the
 leader of the defense."
 
 That's saying quite a lot for a team that has a long list of players that
 could very well be considered the 'leader' of the defense.
 
 Case in point is safety Calvin Pryor, who also got to the century mark in
 tackles last season (100).
 
 Then there's cornerback Hakeem Smith, who is fresh off a Second-Team All-Big
 East selection, the third time he has received all-conference honors.
 
 Finally there is leading pass rusher Lorenzo Mauldin. The 6-foot-4 defensive
 end is a bit undersized for the position at 242 pounds, but still managed a
 team-high 4.5 sacks. The lack of bulk for Mauldin isn't an issue for Strong,
 who has been impressed with Mauldin's work ethic.
 
 "I don't know if there is a player on our team that goes harder than him. You
 can tell (him) to slow down (but) he doesn't know what slow means," Strong
 said.
 
 Even with proven commodities all over the field there will still be detractors
 of Louisville.
 
 During a sensational 2012 season, Louisville didn't play the same type of
 schedule that national title contenders like Alabama and Oregon did. The
 Cardinals were 73rd out of 124 teams at the FBS level in strength of schedule
 (-1.96) according to sports-reference.com and did not face a ranked program
 until the Sugar Bowl.
 
 The schedule isn't exactly laced with a ton of major challenges again this
 season with the Cardinals' biggest non-conference contest on the road against
 intrastate rival Kentucky.
 
 Strong isn't giving credence to any of the doubts against his team though.
 After a strong start to the 2013 calendar year, not just for the football
 program but Louisville athletics in general, Strong sees this year as one that
 will be painted red.
 
 "There are a lot of people who believe 13 is an unlucky number. This year,
 2013, has proven to be very lucky for the Cardinals," Strong said. "(We) have
 proven that '13 is just the right number for the Cardinals."
 
 When asked by a reporter during his pre-spring game press conference if the
 Cardinals were going for 13 wins in '13, Strong let out a laugh. However he
 also said "If we stay humble and stay hungry there is no telling where this
 team can go."
 
 Perhaps how far they will travel is uncertain but 13 wins would definitely be
 the extreme, a national championship level extreme.
 
 
 
 05/16 11:22:25 ET

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