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April 18, 2006
LOUISVILLE, Ky. ? Spring football has a completely different feel at Louisville this season.
There is no talk of a possible undefeated season. Nobody is labeling the Cardinals a dark horse as a national title contender, either. The same program that garnered all but one of the 24 first-place votes in the Big East media poll last year isn't even the league favorite anymore (West Virginia earned that title after upsetting Georgia in the Sugar Bowl).
Take a glance over at the sideline, and the main reason is obvious. Painfully obvious.
Quarterback Brian Brohm ? the reigning Big East Offensive Player of the Year ? has spent the spring in a bright yellow jersey and a knee brace, held out of scrimmages and any kind of contact.
It's a disconcerting sight for a program built on high-powered offenses and big numbers in the passing game. The Cardinals have finished in the top 10 in the nation in total offense in each of the last three seasons (No. 9 in 2005, No. 1 in '04 and No. 5 in '03).
Brohm suffered a torn ACL in his right knee on Nov. 26 against Syracuse when he scrambled out of the pocket and a defender grabbed the back of his pads while he was planting to make a cut. (The NFL began penalizing 'horse-collar' tackles like this in 2005, but the NCAA has yet to implement a similar rule).
Fortunately, that is the extent of the bad news. Truth is, Brohm's rehab is way ahead of schedule. So far ahead that he has been working in non-contact drills for weeks, and coaches fully expect him to be back in full-contact mode by late July, just eight months after the injury.
"I'm working on my timing right now," Brohm told Rivals.com. "Obviously it's frustrating not being allowed to have contact, but considering the circumstances I'm really pleased with how things are moving along."
A relatively new medical procedure that doctors began using two years ago may deserve much of the credit for the quick progression. Just a week after the injury, the 6-foot-4, 225-pound junior-to-be underwent "double-bundle" surgery, a technique designed to help patients recover from ACL tears at a quicker rate. The surgery adds two separate bundles of fibers at different angles, instead of a single bundle, which is the traditional approach.
"I learned way too much about the knee, way more than I ever wanted to know," Brohm said with a laugh when asked about the surgery.
Nobody could make Brohm laugh a week after the surgery. The star from Louisville's Trinity High who threw for 2,883 yards and 18 touchdowns last season could barely walk. Doing something as ordinary as bending down to tie a shoelace was impossible at the time.
"In the beginning of rehab I couldn't bend the knee at all," Brohm said. "I had almost no flexibility and no range of motion. I didn't expect that, and back then I had some doubt about coming back."
Brohm started spending five hours a day in the training room, going through a routine that called for stretching, cardio work and lots of ice to battle the swelling.
"Those were the toughest times," Brohm said. "It was tough. Very tough."
The hard work has paid off. Brohm may be a clipboard holder in practice, but he has been a regular in 7-on-7 drills, flashing the strong arm and pinpoint accuracy that made him a highly coveted recruit and a recruiting target of high-profile programs such as Notre Dame and Tennessee.
"Brian has been doing a nice job," said Louisville coach Bobby Petrino, the mastermind behind Louisville's overwhelming success on offense. "We've been trying a few different drills to try to help him out recognizing the blitz and everything. I think he has definitely improved this spring."
Seeing Brohm rifle passes all over the field again seems to have erased any concerns teammates may have had about the return of their star signal-caller. Backup quarterback Hunter Cantwell, a walk-on, started the final two games of last season and has been handling the first-team offense during the spring, but everyone fully expects Brohm to be under center for the season opener against archrival Kentucky on Sept. 2.
"I'm so proud of Brian," said sophomore receiver Mario Urrutia, who had 37 catches for 797 yards last season. "He went to the training room a lot and it's showed.
"Most quarterbacks who had the same injury wouldn't even be out here yet. Some wouldn't even be ready by the start of the season."
The Cardinals lost a pair of receivers who had 40-plus catches last season ? Joshua Tinch and Montrell Jones ? along with a pair of key offensive linemen - Jason Spitz and Travis Leffew.
But Brohm's quick progress, combined with the return of star running back Michael Bush, who set school records for rushing touchdowns (23) and points scored (144) despite missing two full games with a foot injury last season, has the Cardinals believing the offense can rank among the nation's elite once again.
"I think we can be just as good as last year, maybe better," Brohm said. "Our goal is to have the nation's No.1 offense every year and I think we are capable of that.
"Our center Eric Wood is back. Last year he was the new guy on the line, but I think he can be the guy now that helps to bring along some of the other newcomers.
"We also have some established receivers who I think will really help me get back to a rhythm early on."
Junior Harry Douglas ? the older brother of FSU basketball player Toney Douglas (averaged 16.7 points a game for Auburn as a freshman before transferring) ? reeled in 27 catches for 457 yards. The 5-foot-11, 170-pound speedster provides a good complement for the 6-6, 220-pound Urrutia.
A pair of transfers - Patrick Carter (Georgia Tech) and Chris Vaughn (Notre Dame) ? are also poised to be part of a receiving rotation that often goes five or six deep. Both are 6-3, 215 pounds, and Carter is so athletic he has taken snaps as one of the backup quarterbacks.
"Mario is a tremendous athlete with good speed who knows how to get open," Brohm said. "Vaughn is a guy that can get over the middle and take hits, and Carter is another big-play target."
There is one last obstacle to overcome. Come August, Petrino and his staff plan to give Brohm the real test, sending linemen running past and across his line of vision while he tries to complete passes downfield.
And if Brohm's performance turns out anything like his level of confidence Big East defenses will have plenty to fear.
"I think I will be right back to where I was and can get better," Brohm said. "I have no doubt I'll be 100 percent when the season starts."
For more on the Louisville Cardinals, check out CardinalSports.com.
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