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Big East Countdown - Louisville

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Rejuvenated defense looks to guide Louisville back to the top

Louisville senior Earl Heyman hopes to help turn around a Louisville defense that struggled during the Cardinals' 6-6 campaign in 2007.

  A year or so ago, the Louisville Cardinals seemed to be soaring. The Cards were coming off a Big East Conference championship in 2006 and a win against Wake Forest in the FedEx Orange Bowl.

Even though coach Bobby Petrino had left for the Atlanta Falcons, new coach Steve Kragthorpe had enjoyed success at Tulsa, quarterback Brian Brohm was returning for his senior season and Louisville was again expected to contend for league honors if not make a run at the national title.

Then the season started, and the wheels came off. After crushing Murray State in the opener, Louisville gave up 120 points in its next three games, two of which were losses, including a stunning 38-35 setback to a Syracuse team that was a 37-point underdog.

Brohm, who finished his career with 71 touchdown passes and almost 11,000 passing yards, kept throwing, and the offense kept scoring, but the defense kept giving up huge numbers: Utah had 44 points, West Virginia 38 and South Florida 55.

The lofty preseason expectations melted away into a 6-6 finish with no bowl bid.

The Cardinals fired defensive coordinator Mike Cassity following the season as the defense finished 84th in the nation in total yardage and 91st in scoring. Ron English, the defensive coordinator at Michigan under Lloyd Carr, steps into the position at Louisville, heading up a new defensive staff.

The Cards hope preseason prognosticators are wrong again this year because expectations have been severely lowered, with Louisville picked to finish seventh by Big East media voters.

Senior tackle Earl Heyman, one of eight defensive starters back, says English brings an "in-your-face" personality and "a lot of charisma and integrity," to the position, all of which are welcome.

Heyman says last season was tough to swallow.

"We had a lack of enthusiasm and a lack of excitement, and you can't play football without excitement. It's impossible; you're destined to fail," he says. "We had a lack of cohesion and team chemistry. I'd say that was the biggest thing.

"I'm not one to make excuses. Obviously, we just didn't perform adequately. You can't ask any more of the offense. They're very, very good, year in and year out. But everybody knows defense wins championships."

Kragthorpe, under fire from fans almost from the start of the season, knows defensive progress is critical.

"We've got to improve dramatically on defense," he says. "How much we can improve remains to be seen. But I like our defensive staff. I like our defensive players, and I like the schemes we're going to employ.

"(Last year) was on me. We didn't play well defensively, and that's my fault. Everything that happens in our program is my fault, and I accept full responsibility for everything that happens. I'm the one that's got to get it fixed."

Even the offseason was tumultuous in its own disturbing way.

There was a series of off-field incidents, arrests and dismissals, culminating with the early July shooting of wide receiver Trent Guy. Kragthorpe instituted a midnight curfew and warned his players to stay away from potential trouble spots. Guy, who was hospitalized for several days, is recovering.

"My tolerance level isn't as high as maybe some guys," Kragthorpe says. "When that happens and you dismiss players and you make decisions, those guys basically dismiss themselves. They decide they don't want to live up to the standards we've set on the field, off the field, in the classroom. And if they make that decision, they're not going to be part of the football program."

With Brohm having moved on to the NFL, senior Hunter Cantwell steps into the starting quarterback job. He spelled Brohm several times and has played in 18 games, starting four, with 1,419 career passing yards and 10 touchdown passes.

"We did go 6-6 and didn't go to a bowl game, and that's a huge motivating factor to get back and play with that swagger," Cantwell says. "We want to play with that competitive attitude and bring Louisville back."

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