If there is one position in which Louisville fans should hold little to no concern about, it is the wide receiver corps. The Cards return a incredibly talented, albeit young, cast of receivers that will no doubt flourish under second-year quarterback Teddy Bridgewater. The only loss the group suffers is Josh Bellamy, a senior last year who is working to make the roster for the Kansas City Chiefs. Bellamy, however, became somewhat lost in the shuffle last season, so much in fact Coach Charlie Strong decided to use him a bit at defensive back, seeing him as too talented to keep off the field. Bellamy was projected by many to be the Cards #1 receiver going into last fall, and although he was lost in the shuffle, it was certainly not due to any sort of regression or lack of skill on his part. It was rather due to the fact the young receivers on last year’s squad were just that good and Bridgewater was so comfortable throwing to them. And all of them will be back this year, a year older and a year better. Yet, there is the old “too much of a good thing” saying, and while this group is extremely talented, they need to stay hungry and avoid any sophomore slumps.
The two players who caught more passes than any other Cardinal last year were freshmen Eli Rogers and Michaelee Harris, making 78 receptions between the two of them (37 for Rogers, 41 for Harris. All stats courtesy of ESPN.com). In terms of receiving yards, Harris edged out Rogers with 455 to Rogers’ 454 yards. However, it is important to note that Harris did not play in the Belk Bowl, where Rogers recorded 7 catches for 54 yards. Both receivers came to Louisville as highly touted recruits, and neither failed to impress. Yet, as talented as they both were (and are), both have had their moments that scare(d) fans. With Rogers, it mainly came on special teams as punt returner. The quick and shifty receiver could outjuke nearly any defender in the open field, but when it came to returning punts, every single Cards fan would hold his breath as the ball dropped closer to him. He had his share of dropped punts, none more crucial than the one against Pittsburgh that arguably cost us the game. Had we won that game, we may have been in Miami playing for the Orange Bowl instead of West Virginia. However, we also would have been in Miami had we beat Marshall and Florida International, and that dropped punt should not overshadow what was an outstading freshman season. He of course will have to work on catching the ball before he runs with it if he ever hopes to return punts again. It was easy to forget that he was also still a freshman. As a sophomore, he should come out much more confident.
Harris made his debut for the Cards after sitting out his true freshman season with a torn ACL. This was a heartbreaker for him as well as all Cards fans that saw him shine in spring practice. As a highly regarded 4-star recruit, fans were extremely excited to see what he could do come game time, and an unfortunate injury crushed that anticipation pretty quickly. ACL injuries are not easy to come back from, but do not tell that to Harris, who looked like he had barely lost a step. After playing with Bridgewater in high school at Miami Northwestern, he had already established a rapport with the starting quarterback and quickly became his go-to target. However, he suffered yet another ACL tear late in the season that kept him out of the Belk Bowl and all of spring practice. He came back from the first one successfully, can he do it again? There is no sugar coating it, when a player this young has two highly serious injuries to his knees in two years, it is cause for a little concern. That is not to say that Harris cannot come back yet again to be the go-to receiver, but he will really need to take care of himself. Another knee injury would not only be damaging to the team, but potentially to the long-term career of Harris.
The third member of the freshmen trio of stud receivers was Louisville’s own Devante Parker. While Harris and Rogers are more over-the-middle receivers who can get yards after catch, Parker (listed at 6-3) was a legitimate deep threat. He made several spectacular sideline catches as a freshman that many high level juniors or seniors could not make. The 25-yard touchdown snag from Bridgewater against UK was a thing of beauty and personally made me smile ear to freaking ear. The kid is a special talent. It is as simple as that. The key to this year for Devante to be successful? Again, simple. GET HIM. THE BALL. MORE. For as talented as he was last season (and will be this season), he just did not get as many looks as he should have. Now, this can be attributed to a bit of everyone. Bridgewater obviously had an already established connection with Harris, and to a lesser extent, Rogers, who also is from Florida. The in-season change at offensive coordinator may have had some effect on the playcalling towards Parker’s side. There were also some criticisms of Parker’s route running ability and had trouble getting himself open. Whatever the reason was, Parker was somewhat of a feast or famine player last year, in that he would make one game-changing play, and then remain unseen for the majority of the rest of the game. However, whatever issues he may have had last year, he seems to have improved himself as he looked outstanding in spring practice as well as in the Red-White game. He looks like a legitimate #1 receiver and needs to be utilized as such. That is no disrespect to Harris, Rogers, or any other receiver, either, but he looks as if he has the most pro potential of the group, and if he adds crisp route running to his big play ability, he will be too dangerous to even think about covering. It is also not every day national college football writers make these comparisons.
OK, the pick is terrible. But Devante Parker is not. A 6-5 true frosh, saw him in high school. Great talent. Got a little AJ Green in him.
— Pat Forde (@YahooForde) September 1, 2011
Along with a group of talented underclassmen, the group will be led by two lone seniors in Andrell Smith and Louisville’s own Scott Radcliff. Smith, in his time at Louisville, has been the guy fans expect to have a huge season, but while he has shown flashes, he just has not yet established himself as the player he could be. At 6-3, 217 lbs with experience and athleticism, he could be the big play threat opposite Parker, and if anything, could open up the field for him. His biggest problem has been his hands. There have been too many moments he channelled his inner-Troy Pascley (no offense, Troy) and dropped easy over the shoulder or across the field passes that hit him right in the hands. With his body type and athletic ability, he could be another dangerous weapon for Teddy Bridgewater if he really concentrates on his hands and sees the ball in. Radcliff is the former walk-on, hometown hero type that is just easy to cheer for. At 5-10, 183 lbs, he is not the biggest guy. He is also not the fastest guy. Yet, he has worked his tail off and has earned a scholarship to the staff. While he had good games last year, he did not exactly look like a superstar (in fact, his dropped TD pass against UK right in his chest had me shout more four letter words than the Internet likely allows). It would not be out of the realm for fans to think he earned his scholarship through hard work and earning the respect of the coaching staff, but not exactly for what he was expected to do on the field. Then came the Red-White game, in which Radcliff reeled in 9 catches for 119 yards and looked damn good while doing so. Some fans around me were claiming him to be our Wes Welker. Okay…slow down. That is a bit of a stretch. Regardless, through all his hard work, he looks to be a legitimate over-the-middle receiving threat. His hands were outstanding, and he backed away from no hits. It was just the spring game, but he was going against many first-teamers. If he plays like that in the regular season, it is safe to say he earned his scholarship and then some.
Out of the rest of the group, players like Damian Copeland and Kai Dominguez have the ability to step up and make plays, as does Louisville native Stephan Robinson if he sticks at receiver, where he is currently listed. Yet, the two wild cards for fans to keep an eye out for are redshirt freshman Charles Gaines and potential transfer Bryce McNeal. Gaines originally came to Louisville as a receiver, but was switched to defensive back to bolster the depth there. This came as a bit of a shock to fans who had witnessed him in spring practice. While players like Harris and Rogers were expected to be the stars, Gaines pretty much stole the show with jaw-dropping speed, crisp route running, and great catch after great catch. With what seems to be an established rotation in the seondary, Gaines has moved back to receiver, and if he plays anything close to how he did two springs ago, fans will be in for a nice surprise. McNeal, as of now, is still not officially on the roster, but it looks like he could be any day.
Desmond Conner of the Hartford Courant “hearing” that Clemson transfer WR Bryce McNeal will end up at
— CBSSportsBigEast (@CBSBigEast) July 31, 2012
McNeal was ranked as the 75th best player in the nation by Rivals.com and the 10th overall receiver. He committed to Clemson, where he never quite got it going. He played one full season before he decided to transfer. He is a smart kid, having graduated in just three years, and will have two full years of eligibility left, and yes, he will be eligible this season. He was considered an elite receiver coming out of high school and maybe he just needs a change of scenery. He could be our offensive of version of what Adrian Bushell was last season. He certainly would not hurt. However, if he does indeed transfer here, it has to be considered that Charles Gaines could move back to defensive back (props to @UofLSheriff50 on that point)
This is one group that looks to be very dominant. If Harris comes back fully healthy (a big if), Rogers and Parker avoid the sophomore slump and continue to improve and impress, Smith and Radcliff prove as valuable seniors both on and off the field, McNeal shows up and plays to his potential, and finally, if Charles Gaines stays put and puts on the show fans expected him to when they saw him two springs ago…well…we could be in for some offensive fireworks.