Smashing debut shows Braden Smith is another big weapon for Cards

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LOUISVILLE, Ky. (KT) -- It's a classic case of the rich getting richer, this time as it applies to the football field.


Going into this season Louisville was well-stocked with offensive weapons --  wide receivers Tutu Atwell and Dez Fitzpatrick, quarterback Micale Cunningham, tight end Marshon Ford and running backs Javian Hawkins and Hassan Hall.


At wideout, Atwell and Fitzpatrick had established themselves as household names among Cardinal fans, with Atwell even having been named a preseason All-American this summer. Now, if his performance in UofL's opening 35-21 win over Western Kentucky is any indication, newcomer Braden Smith is primed to make a name for himself too and join the list of dangerous threats on Louisville's big-play offense.


Along with Atwell and Fizpatrick, Smith allows No. 18/16 UofL (1-0) to give No. 17-18 Miami (1-0) plenty to worry about from the passing game in their important ACC opener Saturday night in Cardinal Stadium (7:30 p.m. EDT, ABC).


Fitzpatrick and Smith racked up 110 yards apiece on just four receptions each against the HIlltoppers, while Atwell, a Miami native, added 78 yards on seven catches.


"Their combination of quarterback, running back and wide receiver is right up there in the top three (in the ACC)," Miami coach Manny Diaz said. "You've got to stop the run, and then the whole key is you've got to limit their explosive plays. Because you get so tied up in the run game, and all of a sudden they play-action pass and hit someone in the flat or they try to throw it over your head.


"And that's really what they did to Western Kentucky. That's the whole design of their passing offense. They're going to take those shots. So it's a challenge to everybody on the defensive side of the ball."


Smith, however, believes UofL's depth at wide receiver goes beyond the most productive trio from last Saturday. He believes you can also throw Justin Marshall, Corey Reed and Jordan Watkins, among others, into the mix.


"It's ridiculous how many, how much speed and route running we have at wide receiver," Smith said. "I mean, all nine of us have the ability to start and make plays at any point in the game. That's a big part of the success we're going to have this season, and I think that's a testament to the training we do and coach (Gunther) Brewer, our receivers coach."


While the coaches had immediately recognized Smith's ability during the abbreviated spring practice, as far as UofL fans are concerned, the Flowood, Miss., native and JUCO transfer came from out of nowhere, arriving early in the game against WKU.


With the Cards backed up on their own 8-yard line and facing third-and-10 on their second series, Smith lined up in the slot between Atwell and Marshall for a play coach Scott Satterfield had named "licking your chops." Smith and Cunningham did just that and connected for a 63-yard gain down the middle of the field.


"We were looking forward to that look, so we attacked it," Cunningham said. "We knew they were going to try and take Tutu away, which they did a pretty good job. When they take away our number one guy, we have other guys who can step up."


Smith was caught at the WKU 28 with a diving tackle, but the play lit a spark under the Louisville offense and on the next play Cunningham hit tight end Ean Pfeifer for a touchdown to start a string of 28 consecutive points.


And Smith, who plays in UofL's four-receiver set and in the slot when Atwell needs a rest, wasn't finished. Later in the period he caught another pass over the middle for a 48-yard gain to set up another TD.


"Having Braden is huge," UofL offensive coordinator Dwayne Ledford said Tuesday after practice. "What a way to come on the scene. That position, the slot receiver, that guy's going to have a lot of opportunities. He's another person you want to try to get the ball to, and that's the great thing about it. There's a lot of guys on this offense that can do some great things with the ball in their hands."


For his performance, Smith was named the ACC Receiver of the Week after becoming the first UofL player since Deion Branch in 2000 to get 100 or more receiving yards in his debut.


"It's surreal," Smith said. "Growing up as a kid, this is the moment you dream about. I'm just thankful the coaches even gave me the opportunity to go out there and make a play, and I just tried to do my small role."


Louisville is the third, and probably final, stop for Smith, who was a quarterback in high school. He originally walked on to Mississippi State, but left after a redshirt season and enrolled at hometown Northwest Mississippi Community College, where he recorded 92 receptions for 1,261 yards and 18 touchdowns in two seasons.


When it came time to move on, the only official visit he took was to Louisville, explaining that there was no need to look further because he found what he wanted in the Cards' program and facilities, which he called "awesome."


"This is the greatest decision I've ever made football-wise," he said.


QUOTABLE: A Western Kentucky defender was poised to pick up a dangerous pass Cunningham threw in the third quarter, but Fitzpatrick sliced in front of him at the last second, snatched the ball away and rambled 70 yards for a touchdown.


 "Honestly, in the game of football you have to get lucky sometimes and Dez bailed me out on that one. That's all I'm going to say."


And all I will say is that it undoubtedly isn't the last time this season when the Cards' receiving corps will make their quarterback look good.

Russ Brown, a former sportswriter for The Courier-Journal and USA Today, covers University of Louisville sports and college football and basketball for Kentucky Today. He can be contacted at 0926.russ.brown@gmail.com.

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