LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) — Bobby Petrino returned to Louisville aiming to continue his success at the school that jump-started his head coaching career.
His quest is tougher this time with the Cardinals entering the Atlantic Coast Conference, but he and his players are eager to begin preparation for the competition in a new league.
Practice opens Tuesday morning for Louisville, which hired Petrino in January for a second stint with the program he guided to a 41-9 record from 2003-06. He inherits a team that went 23-3 the past two seasons but looks to raise its play in the ACC.
Louisville needs to replace several defensive starters and ensure quarterback Will Gardner succeeds on offense in a league featuring defending national champion Florida State and its Heisman Trophy-winning QB, Jameis Winston. Petrino said Monday that the transition has gone smoothly.
"I compare it to when I was here the first time and was coming off a team that was coached by John L. Smith," said Petrino, who improved that 7-6 squad to 9-4 in his rookie year. "(They're) a group of guys that know how to work hard and have positive attitudes and are used to winning games.
"That's really made the transition easy for our staff because the guys really have a good work ethic. ... The quicker that we get over that there's a change and just adapt to it, the better chance we have to be a championship team. I've been really impressed with our attitudes."
Louisville's next step is converting that focus into chemistry and execution.
Quarterback will be the Cardinals' closest-watched position, where Gardner will try to pick up where star Teddy Bridgewater left off before departing to become a first-round NFL draft pick with the Minnesota Vikings. That's a tall task for any potential successor, more so when the offense-minded Petrino is the coach.
Fortunately for Gardner, he got the opportunity to showcase his ability last season in relief of Bridgewater. Petrino came away even more impressed with the redshirt sophomore in the spring, saying he "made strides" and showed the leadership needed to run the pass-oriented system.
Louisville's offensive line depth is a concern, but the coach said his outlook has brightened. Senior guard Jake Smith added that the Cardinals' younger players must develop enough to provide that depth.
"You have to have 10 guys to win a championship on the offensive line," he said. "Last year we played with seven or eight, but we're trying to get everybody to develop and play to their capability."
Louisville's main issue is replacing seven defensive starters including playmaking safeties Calvin Pryor and Hakeem Smith, while making the switch to a 3-4 set.
The Cardinals' upside is that they get pass-rushing end/linebacker Lorenzo Mauldin back after he missed the spring recovering from shoulder surgery, while cornerbacks Charles Gaines and Terell Floyd return. Petrino said Monday that he was looking at playing Floyd at free safety and nickel back along with corner.
"It's always hard to move a guy that's been a starter and has done a great job there," the coach said, "but we feel like he'll really give us some leadership in the back. You've got Gaines on the edge and him in the back, and I think that'll solidify our secondary."
The first week of practice will be open to the public through Sunday along with the Aug. 16 scrimmage that precedes Fan Day. Louisville opens the season at home Sept. 1 against Miami (Fla.), which the Cardinals trounced 36-9 last December in the Russell Athletic Bowl.