2017 Record: 8-5 (4-4, ACC Atlantic)
2017 Review: The Cardinal offense was explosive last year, finishing first or second in the conference, and in the top 15 nationally, in nearly every statistical category. While departed all-star QB Lamar Jackson was given credit for all of that, it would be foolish to not also give credit to the coaches and other players on this side of the ball.
Scheme: Head coach Bobby Petrino has long been known for his pro-style passing concepts, but Petrino added to his offensive resume when he started adding zone read, RPO, and QB run concepts into his offense. Part of that was due to having Jackson on the roster, but Petrino also saw the potential of a running QB when he coached Michael Vick with the Atlanta Falcons. Petrino still uses NFL-style passing concepts, but he’s more than happy to incorporate college-friendly components too.
Quarterbacks: So, let’s go ahead and state the obvious: Louisville will miss Jackson. The 2016 Heisman winner put up absurd video game stats, racking up 281.5 yards passing per game last year and another 123.2 yards rushing per game as well as 45 total touchdowns. Jackson smashed the record books and he’ll be missed. There are two things that stand out here, though. One, you get the sense that Louisville missed out on a big opportunity, winning 8 games, 9 games, and 8 games again in three years with Jackson at QB. No division titles, no ACC titles, and just one bowl win. Two, because of that, you also get the sense that Louisville is not going to fall off a cliff without Jackson. The wins bar is set pretty low and Petrino has won everywhere he’s been, with or without Jackson. In fact, according to SB Nation’s Bill Connelly, Petrino has only won fewer than eight games once in his 13 years as a college coach.
All that to say, there really should not be that much pressure on sophomore Jawon “Puma” Pass, the clear heir apparent to Jackson. Because of Jackson (and maybe because of his nickname), there will be expectations that Pass is a dual threat QB, but, in reality, he is much more of a pocket passer. In terms of Petrino QBs of the past, he is much more like Tyler Wilson of Arkansas—a good enough athlete to run, but mainly a thrower. Pass (238 yds, 70%, 2 TDs) appeared in 6 games last year and has all the tools to be Petrino’s next great college QB, blessed with size and a big arm. Backup Malik Cunningham is much more in the Jackson mold and if Pass was to get hurt, I think you’d see Petrino lean heavily on the QB run game. As long as Pass is in, I think you’ll see a bit more reliance on the passing attack.
Running Backs: Reggie Bonnafon and Malik Williams have moved on after splitting the RB spot last year and there is a three-way race to win the starting job. There is not anyone who jumps off the page at you here, but the coaches seem to think they can get production by committee at worst.
The guys with the most experience are sophomore Dae Williams and junior Trey Smith. Williams (235 yds, 6.2 avg, 3 TDs) played down the stretch last year and flashed serious potential, looking good in games against FSU and Virginia. He’s the clubhouse leader to start. Smith (124 yds, 5.9 avg) was fourth on the depth chart last year and saw some action. He has a nice size and speed combo, but has yet to fully put it together. As such, redshirt frosh Colin Wilson is currently listed as the backup. A high 4* recruit coming out of high school, Wilson has size (6-1, 230) and toughness as well as a really high ceiling.
Wide Receivers/Tight Ends: One thing that should help the development of Pass is the fact that the top three pass catchers from last year return. It does not appear Louisville has the depth of some other receiving corps in the ACC, but their starting trio should be among the best in the conference.
Senior Jaylen Smith (60 receptions, 980 yds, 7 TDs) is the biggest of the group at 6-4, 220 and possesses big play ability. Sophomore Dez Fitzpatrick (45 recs, 699 yds, 9 TDs) is a sure-handed slot receiver who led the team in touchdown receptions last season. Junior Seth Dawkins (42 recs, 642 yds, 4 TDs) is more of a possession receiver, running good routes and rarely dropping the ball. Sophomores Corey Reed and Josh Johnson only combined for 11 receptions last year, but most inside the program expect them to take a big leap forward. Junior Devante Peete returns after missing last year with injury, sophomore Keion Wakefield is an intriguing option in the slot, and there are five redshirt or true freshmen who were 4* or high 3* recruits. Bodies is not the issue, but experience off the bench is.
At tight end, Louisville has a nice one-two punch in senior Micky Crum and sophomore Kemari Averett. Crum has never lived up to the considerable hype he received as a recruit, often struggling to stay healthy, but he is a great blocker. Averett caught seven passes in limited opportunities last year and many expect him to have a big year. He has the best combination of pass-catching and blocking ability in the group.
Offensive Line: Mike Summers came in last season as the co-OC and OL coach and he made a big difference on this side of the ball. Louisville’s line was not great, but they were very good and should only get better with four starters back.
The Cards have lots of experience at guard, where seniors Lukayus McNeil and Kenny Thomas return. McNeil has 33 career starts while Thomas has 29. They are big and steady. Speaking of big, sophomore RT Mekhi Becton goes 6-7, 360. He started 12 games last year and is considered an emerging star. Sophomore C Robbie Bell started all 13 games last season and got better and better. The new starter will be senior Linwood Foy at LT, replacing All-ACC performer Geron Christian. Foy has never started and is a bit on the small size (6-4, 300) for a LT, but he seems about the only option the Cards have. If Foy struggles, redshirt freshman Toryque Bateman would be the next up. Depth is mostly young, although sophomore Cole Bentley started a game last year and can plug in at guard or center.
2017 Review: As good as the offense was, the defense was equally porous. Louisville finished 9th or 10th in the conference in most defensive categories and allowed a pretty poor 5.6 yards per play. The Cards forced a lot of turnovers, but beyond that were not good defensively.
Scheme: Peter Sirmon was an odd hire at DC to begin with after struggling at Mississippi State and Sirmon promptly bolted for a LBs coach job at Cal as soon as the season ended. If Sirmon was an odd hire, so is his replacement, Brian VanGorder, the former Georgia and Notre Dame DC who was fired four games into the 2016 season by the latter. VanGorder was an analyst the past two seasons and very few people seem bullish on the prospects of him turning around this unit. VanGorder is also switching Louisville to a 4-3 defense after they’ve lined up in a 3-4 ever since Petrino came back for his second tour. Like his predecessors Todd Grantham and Sirmon, VanGorder runs an attacking, blitz-heavy style.
Defensive Line: The defensive line was not exactly great last year, but they did tend to create a lot of tackles for loss and sacks. The bad news for VanGorder is that half of the main contributors from last year’s rotation are gone. The good news is that junior RUSH end Jon Greenard is back. One of the three main defensive ends last year, Greenard (48 tackles, 15.5 for loss, 7 sacks) was very productive last season and has a chance to push for postseason honors. His running mate will probably be sophomore Tabarious Peterson (18 tackles), junior Amonte Caban, sophomore Michael Boykin, junior Boosie Whitlow, a transfer from South Carolina, or true freshman Jarrett Jackson, an early enrollee who impressed the coaches all spring.
The Cards have a bit more experience at tackle, where senior Henry Famuwera and junior G.G. Robinson return after seeing lots of action last year. Famuwera (23 tackles, 3 for loss, 2 sacks) has been a top backup the past two years, but will be asked to start this season. Robinson (28 tackles, 3 for loss) was a spot starter last year and has nice size (6-4, 300) and strength. Sophomore Derek Dorsey is the only backup with playing experience. Classmates Caleb Tillman and Jared Goldwire will need to be able to provide reps.
Linebackers: This group might be the best position segment on the defense, although they are young. Sophomore MLB Dorian Etheridge (83 tackles, 3 for loss) led the team in tackles as a true freshman and should only get better. Senior Isaac Stewart (26 tackles, 2 for loss) gives Louisville an experienced backup in the middle.
Louisville will likely be very young on the outside, with some combination of sophomore CJ Avery, sophomore PJ Blue, or true freshman Robert Hicks manning the two outside spots. Avery (25 tackles) was recruited as a safety and is still undersized (5-11, 205) but he has great playmaking potential. Blue did not log any stats last year, but the coaches love his size (6-3, 220) and athleticism. Hicks is a 4* recruit out of Miami who enrolled early and constantly put on a show. With ready-made college size at 6-1, 240, Hicks is going to see the field. Senior London Iakopo (12 tackles, 1.5 for loss) was running with the starters in spring, but I really think he’ll be passed up by the younger guys at some point.
Secondary: This unit is seeing almost a total rebuild after three starters graduated. Plus, Louisville is largely relying on transfers and freshmen to play here. This unit will be a concern from game one until they prove otherwise.
The one returning starter is sophomore Russ Yeast, who got several starts last year with the now-departed Jaire Alexander injured. Yeast (23 tackles, 2 pass breakups), whose father was a star WR at Kentucky, did not exactly light the world on fire as a freshman, but he flashed potential. From there? Louisville hopes junior PJ Mbanasor, sophomore Rodjay Burns, senior Cornelius Sturghill, or redshirt frosh Anthony Johnson are ready to play. Mbanasor is a transfer from Oklahoma who was a 4* recruit and started two games with the Sooners in 2015. He has talent and size (6-1, 200) and is being counted on to log significant snaps. Burns, a transfer from Ohio State, is being looked at as a potential top backup and nickel guy. Sturghill was limited to 4 games last year due to injury, but he does have experience. Johnson was tabbed as someone to watch by his teammates. Four star JC transfer Marlon Character and highly touted true freshmen Jairus Brents and Chandler Jones will surely be given their chances.
Although Yeast is the lone returning starter, the Cards have more experience at safety, with senior Dee Smith, junior Khane Pass, and sophomore TreSean Smith all having played. Dee Smith (53 tackles, INT) was a top backup and spot starter who did not make a lot of plays, but was steady. Pass (38 tackles, 3 for loss, INT) flashed potential off the bench and is leading to start at SS. TreSean Smith (34 tackles, 4 for loss, 2 INTs) might be a year away from starting but he seems like the most natural playmaker. He’s going to play a lot, whether he starts or not.
Special Teams: The kicking game should do nothing but help the Cards. Junior Blanton Creque made 17 of 20 field goal attempts and has decent range. Junior punter Mason King averaged 43.9 yards per kick. The return units were below average, but Louisville certainly has players on the roster that seem capable of improving that.
Schedule: Opening with a tough opponent is never ideal when breaking in a new QB and defensive system, but opening with Alabama is not ideal regardless of outside factors. Beyond that, the schedule is a mixed bag. The rest of the nonconference schedule are all home games (Indiana State, Western Kentucky, Kentucky) and Louisville will surely be the favorite in all three. The ACC slate features tough road dates with Clemson and BC, but is balanced with FSU, GA Tech, and NC State all coming to Louisville.
Overall: Louisville is a hard team to peg. One would expect them to fall off a cliff after losing Jackson, but the Cards never won more than 9 games with him and Petrino’s pedigree says the offense will be fine in time. The defense is more worrisome, with a new, debatable coordinator and not a lot of talent or proven depth anywhere. That being said, Bill Connelly’s S&P+ system only has Louisville as an underdog in three games and one of them is a toss-up (he has FSU as 51% likely to beat the Cards). Even if we assume the offense is fine eventually, I could still see Louisville losing shootouts due to their defense, which does not inspire confidence. The ACC media tabbed Louisville fifth in the division and I have seen preseason magazines that have them sixth or even seventh. I don’t think Louisville will fall off a cliff and finish last in the Atlantic, but I don’t see them doing much better than 7-5 and 4-4 in the conference either. I do think the offense will be fine, but I also think the defense might be among the worst in the ACC and that will come back to bite the Cards given the depth of the Atlantic this year.