LOUISVILLE, Kentucky — Almost overlooked in the attention over Louisville coach Bobby Petrino's choice of three quarterback options are the several new faces the Cardinals will start on both sides of the ball.
Ten Louisville players were in last spring's NFL draft, including leading receiver DeVante Parker, All-American safety Gerod Holliman and pass rusher Lorenzo Mauldin. Overall, the Cardinals lost more than two dozen upperclassmen from a 9-4 squad that lost 37-14 to Georgia in the Belk Bowl.
"That's a lot of players to replace," Petrino said before quickly adding, "our players see it as (an) opportunity."
Ten starters return for Louisville including six on offense, but there are big voids to fill with playmaking and leadership. On the bright side, the play of veterans and newcomers in fall camp has Petrino encouraged about Louisville's chances in the Atlantic Coast Conference's Atlantic division.
The offense returns six starters including the QB trio of sophomores Reggie Bonnafon and Kyle Bolin and junior Will Gardner, who have all had their good days in camp. Junior running back Brandon Radcliff (737 yards, 12 touchdowns) leads a deep backfield, while tight ends Keith Towbridge and Charles Standberry are reliable targets in the passing game along with junior wideout James Quick.
"All of the quarterbacks are doing good," Standberry said. "Every day, we see something from a different quarterback, a different thing each of them can do."
Louisville also retained offensive coordinator Garrick McGee and defensive coordinator Charles Grantham, who turned down opportunities with Oklahoma and the NFL's Oakland Raiders respectively.
What's left for the Cardinals is blending their personnel and making a run at ACC favorite Clemson and Florida State in the division. The Cardinals had chances against both schools last season, losing a close game at Clemson and blowing a big lead at home to FSU.
"It's up to us to make a difference," said Petrino, whose team is picked to finish third. "You have to go out and play well and find a way to win the games."
Some things to watch in Louisville's season:
QUARTERBACK BATTLE: Petrino faces a tough quarterback decision, having to choose between Bonnafon, Gardner and Bolin — all of whom thrived at different stretches last season. That Gardner is even in the mix is impressive. He is coming off his third left knee surgery last fall but is bidding to be the starter again after passing for 1,699 yards and 12 TDs. Bonnafon combined for 1,020 yards and 10 TDs while Bolin threw for 681 yards in the final two games after Bonnafon got hurt.
RELOADED DEFENSE: Though the Cardinals lost seven starters from the nation's sixth-ranked defense last season, four return from a strong front seven led by linebackers James Burgess and Keith Kelsey, and linemen Sheldon Rankins and Pio Vatuvei. Lineman DeAngelo Brown and linebacker Keith Brown (no relation) are also back. Georgia transfer Josh Harvey-Clemons is eligible and has been impressive at safety, a good thing for a revamped secondary that led the nation with 26 interceptions.
WIDE RECEIVER DEPTH: The departures of Parker and solid supporters such as Eli Rogers and TE Gerald Christian have opened up spots for a young, inexperienced corps. And they're responding. "All our young guys are getting out there and making plays," Gardner said. Quick is poised to assume Parker's deep-threat role after catching 36 passes for 566 yards and three TDs, and Texas A&M transfer Ja'Quay Savage could provide another option.
OFFENSIVE LINE: Six-foot-7 tackle Aaron Epps was voted a team co-captain and aims to be a huge presence up front on a unit that lost three starters. Center Tobijah Hughley also returns after starting 12 of 13 contests.
BIG EARLY TESTS: Louisville must establish its ACC cred right off the bat with league favorite Clemson (home) and Florida State (away) among a first-half gantlet of opponents that includes the Sept. 5 opener vs. Auburn in Atlanta. All three schools could be ranked in the top 15 when The Associated Press' preseason poll is released this weekend.