LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) — Louisville coach Bobby Petrino expected Reggie Bonnafon and Kyle Bolin to compete for the starting quarterback job before announcing that incumbent Will Gardner had recovered well enough from knee surgery to make it a three-man race.
Offensive coordinator Garrick McGee called the abundance of signal-callers “a good situation to have,” especially with the Cardinals needing to replace many starters around them.
Louisville begins its second preseason camp Thursday in Petrino’s second stint at the school after going 9-4 last season and reaching its fifth straight bowl game. The Cardinals enter this season as the media’s pick to finish third behind preseason Atlantic Coast Conference favorite Clemson and Florida State in the Atlantic Division.
The challenge is not unlike last fall except that Petrino now has three QBs with game experience, compared to none a year ago.
“Right now we’re sitting here and we’ve got three guys that have shown that they can play in big games,” Petrino said Wednesday, “and that they can find a way to win big games.
“Now, we can have really good competition, and they’re all going to make each other better.”
Louisville’s crowded quarterback corps includes new additions Tyler Ferguson, a junior transfer from Penn State; freshman Lamar Jackson; and sophomore Ethan Horton. But the attention will focus on which one of the veterans emerges as the starter.
Petrino didn’t expect Gardner would part of the discussion so soon after a third surgery last fall to repair a torn left anterior cruciate ligament. The most experienced quarterback of the three after starting seven of eight games and passing for 1,669 yards and 12 touchdowns in 2014, Gardner was recently still working on some of his movement.
Now he’s back on the coaches’ radar after being cleared to practice.
“What we have to now see is how he will handle it five days in a row,” Petrino said.
Bonnafon appears to be the early favorite after starting five of 10 games last season and looking sharp in spring drills. Petrino likes the Louisville native’s dual skills that resulted in 864 yards and five touchdowns passing and 164 yards and five TDs rushing.
Bolin is a strong contender after a solid spring that followed an impressive stint in relief of the injured Bonnafon in the final two games. He threw for a season-high 381 yards with three TDs against rival Kentucky and added 300 yards in the 37-14 Belk Bowl loss to Georgia.
The player who wins the QB spot must help the offense establish consistency and earn the key wins that eluded the Cardinals against Clemson and FSU last season. With those schools and Southeastern Conference favorite Auburn highlighting a challenging first half of the season, it’s no wonder coaches will take a long, hard look at all their QB choices.
“We’ve just got to figure out which guy can focus and concentrate the longest and focus on the details,” McGee said.
Ten starters return for Louisville including six on offense, but it must replace three offensive linemen and develop receiving targets besides junior James Quick. The Cardinals return leading rusher Brandon Radcliff (787 yards, 12 TDs).
Louisville’s defense will feature some new starters as well but returns many regulars from its front seven, including three of the top four tacklers in Keith Kelsey, James Burgess and Sheldon Rankins.