LOUISVILLE, Ky. (KT) - It would be difficult to find an unbiased observer who believes Louisville can be competitive with Alabama in its season opener, let alone beat the defending national champions Sept. 1 in Atlanta.
And therein lies Louisville coach Bobby Petrino's biggest challenge over the next 2 1/2 months: making his players believe that they can win the game despite being a 25 1/2-point underdog, the biggest point spread ever for a Petrino-coached Louisville team.
Petrino touched on that and other subjects during a Tuesday afternoon press conference in Papa John's Cardinal Stadium as he met with the media for the first time since the spring intrasquad game in April.
“The number one thing that we’ve got to be able to do is work hard enough and believe in each other so that we take the field truly believing we’re going to win the game," he said. "I’ve seen that when we’ve played (Alabama) when I was at Arkansas. We wanted to believe one year that we were going to beat them.
"But when you don’t believe it, truly believe it, you drop the pass that you normally caught. You slip and fall. You don’t throw the ball on the exact curl route you practiced every day in practice. All of a sudden, now it’s either short or long.
“We’ve had years where we really believed it and came out and executed. We were right there in a position to win the game. That’s the thing that we’ve got to get our players to understand. We don’t have to do anything extraordinary to beat them. We’ve just got to play football the way it’s supposed to be played and truly believe we can win the game.
“I correlate it a little bit to the first time we went down to Miami and played them in the Orange Bowl (in a 41-38 loss in 2004). That team took the field believing they were going to win the game. Played aggressive. Played hard the entire game.”
The best news to come out of the media session for Cardinal fans is that Jaylen Smith, Louisville's leading receiver last year despite missing three games, has returned to workouts after offseason wrist surgery.
Smith, who will be a senior this fall, caught 60 passes for 980 yards and seven touchdowns last season and is considered a contender for all-Atlantic Coast Conference honors this year.
"Jaylen is back doing everything," Petrino said. "He's got a ways to go as far as getting rid of the atrophy in his arm and getting the strength back. He's been doing a lot, even when he was in a cast, as far as running and one-arm lifting and all that, but this gives him a lot of time to get ready for the season, so that's good to see."
Petrino said receivers Keion Wakefield and Devante Peete, running back Colin Wilson, defensive lineman Jared Goldwire and linebacker P.J. Blue are “full go.”
He also said that running back Dae Williams, who is returning from a knee injury, "is working hard. He’s not exactly full go yet, but we’re optimistic he’ll ready to go prior to opening up camp. I think that’s the big key that it's prior to (camp), so he goes through the aches and pains before we start practice.”
Petrino's biggest current worry injury-wise is the status of sophomore safety TreSean Smith, who underwent knee surgery after a serious injury in the TaxSlayer Bowl. Smith has returned to running and Petrino thinks he will be back for fall camp but could feel some pain and/or fatigue.
Petrino joked when asked about a report Monday that the crowded bowl schedule will grow by three in 2020 with games being added in Chicago, Myrtle Beach, S.C. and possibly Tempe, Ariz.
The ACC would be matched against a Big Ten team in Chicago.
“ACC in Chicago?” Petrino said. “Oh wow! It’s different than the old days, but so is everything else. You’ve got cellphones, stupid text messages. I mean everything is different. Why shouldn’t the bowl games be any different?”
McDONNELL, WALZ CONTRACTS ENHANCED
As promised by athletics director Vince Tyra, the UofL Athletics Association (ULAA) approved enhancing the contracts of baseball coach Dan McDonnell and women's basketball coach Jeff Walz during a meeting of its personnel committee Tuesday.
The financial terms weren't available because the contracts haven't been produced and signed yet, but Tyra said McDonnell, whose contract runs through 2026, will receive an increase in his $1 million base salary, although the deal probably won't be extended.
Tyra said Walz, who is signed through 2022, will get a three-year extension, along with a boost in his base salary of $1.15 million, plus incentives.
"We looked around to make sure that their incentives were in line with what other coaches contracts look like," Tyra said. "They've been happy here, and we're just trying to keep them happy here. When you've got these quality coaches, they're going to get approached, they're going to have opportunities out there, but I think what we have here is what they want. That's my role, to make sure that going forward we're on the same page, and we make it possible for them to stay here and be a part of the University of Louisville."
McDonnell and Walz were both hired by previous athletics director Tom Jurich, and McDonnell says it's nice to know that Tyra also has confidence in him.
"With a new athletic director and university president, you want to know they're appreciative of what's going on with the program and, more importantly, thinking about the future," McDonnell says. 'It was never about the money. It's about what we've done over the past 12 years and realizing that investment and preparing for the future."
McDonnell was approached by Mississippi State for its head coaching job, but Jurich said during interviews last week that he never thought McDonnell would leave Louisville.
"I don't think he ever entertained leaving," Jurich said. "Dan's a fixture here. He's built his own legacy and he deserves all the accolades he gets. He's that good."
McDonnell's baseball team has more than 40 games seven years in a row -- the second-longest streak in the nation -- has been in an NCAA regional in 11 of his 12 seasons and has been to four College World Series. This year's team reached the championship game of the ACC Tournament and played in the Lubbock NCAA Regional, but was eliminated by Texas Tech, which went on to advance to the CWS by defeating Duke in the Super Regional.
Walz guided UofL's women to the Final Four for the third time last season, loses just one starter and added one of the top recruiting classes in the nation.
Tyra told the ULAA board that the two coaches "represent a lot of what we're trying to accomplish in the athletic department," adding:
"It just wasn't about their compensation, but we go down the line and look at the whole program, whether its summer school and completion of degrees, whether its facility issues or their staffs, it's a program discussion as much as it is an individual discussion. These coaches see the upside in what we have, and they know we're not done investing in them and in their programs. I think it speaks volumes to our fans. These are the leaders. They have the inside look at things. I can go out and do things, but when the coaches speak, signing up for long-term extensions and so forth, I think that says a lot."
CARDS ADD BATTAILE, AFTER OTHERS
Coach Chris Mack added a walk-on guard from Pikeville, Ky., to U of L's basketball roster Monday night, then said during a radio interview Tuesday that he still hopes to add more depth for the upcoming season.
Wayne Battaile, who led Pikeville High to the Sweet 16 last season, announced his decision to attend UofL on Twitter. The 6-foot-5 guard originally committed to Morehead State, but instead accepted a preferred walk-on offer from the Cards.
Battaile, who averaged 24.1 points and 8.6 rebounds as a senior, joins Jacob Redding and Jo Griffin as walk-on guards. Battaile was coached at Pikeville by former U of L guard Elisha Justice.
"We're not gonna be done up until the point where we're not allowed to enroll anybody at the University of Louisville academically," Mack said during an appearance on ESPN-680's Drew Deener Show.
The Cardinals have just nine scholarship players on the roster for the 2018-19 season. The NCAA allows 13 scholarships per team, but UofL must cut four scholarships total over the next four years as part of the NCAA's punishment for the school's stripper scandal.
Mack said the team is looking at some incoming freshman, who he hopes can complement a nucleus he calls "really, really good."
"At this point, you're probably not gonna have your best players join your program, and that's all right," he added. "For us, we certainly want to add talent. Might be a guy that we redshirt as a freshman. We're working hard every single day to identify guys out there that can help us."
Mack also discussed other topics during the 15-minute segment, including the challenge of recruiting because of Louisville's involvement in the FBI's investigation into college basketball. He said Tyra has talked to visiting recruits and they "feel confident in where the program is headed."
"Kids want to play beyond Louisville," Mack said. "They want to play at the next level. You can get that shot here. We don't feel like there's going be an NCAA Tournament ban. You never say never. That part's going to be answered down the line. That stuff has to work its way out in the courts anyway."
NWORA IN WORLD CUP
Sophomore forward Jordan Nwora has been named to the 17-man preliminary team for Nigeria's trio of FIBA World Cup qualifiers June 29-July 1. He has dual citizenship, which allows him to play for Nigeria. Nwora's father, Alex, is the head coach of the Nigerian team and is also the head coach at Erie Community College near Buffalo.
Nigeria is 3-0 in World Cup qualifiers, with romps past Mali, Rwanda and Uganda in February, and will host the same three teams at National Stadium in Lagos, Nigeria. Among the other players on the squad are former Arizona State star Ike Diogu; Michael Efeverha, who played for UC-Irvine and Cal State Northridge; former Floida State center Michael Ojo; ex-Pittsburgh bigman Talib Zanna and Moses Kingsley, who starred at Arkansas. Diogu was the leading scorer and rebounder in the first three games, averaging 17.7 ppg. and six rpg. Efevberha was second in scoring at 15.7 ppg.
Russ Brown, a former sportswriter for The Courier-Journal and USA Today, covers University of Louisville sports and college basketball and football for Kentucky Today. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.