Louisville didn’t end their season quite like they started, but Heisman-winner Lamar Jackson returns with unfinished business.
August marks the start of college football, and it’s been a long time coming. Here at SQ we’re previewing all the top teams in the country based on our own top-25. Yesterday we took an in-depth look at our #18 Miami, and today we’re previewing the 17th-ranked Louisville Cardinals.
Team Name: Louisville Cardinals
2016 Record and Rank: 9-4 (21st)
Coach: Bobby Petrino (8 years, 67-22)
Key Arrivals: S CJ Avery, WR Justin Marshall, OL Ronald Rudd, RB Colin Wilson CB Russ Yeast III
Previewing Louisville’s Offense
When a team has a Heisman trophy-winning quarterback, the offensive numbers are bound to be impressive. With Lamar Jackson running the show, Louisville was one of the best offensive teams in the country, ranking fifth in total yards (6,925) and sixth in points per game (42.5). The Cardinals didn’t end the season on a high note, losing their final three games, but the offense should be able to rebound and build off their early success throughout this new season.
By now, fans all over the country know about Jackson’s incredible rise to stardom. He was able to throw for 3,453 yards with 30 touchdowns and only nine interceptions. What might be even more impressive is that Jackson added 1,571 rushing yards (10th nationally) and 21 touchdowns (fifth). Jackson will return for his junior season to lead Louisville to new heights.
Jackson may have led the team in rushing, but Louisville lost their backfield threat to the NFL. Brandon Radcliff rushed for 903 yards on 138 carries (6.5 YPC) and added six touchdowns as well. Senior Jeremy Smith, who finished with 382 yards and eight touchdowns, is tasked with taking over for Radcliff. A broken foot in spring practice derailed Smith a bit, but coach Petrino says he is healthy and running full speed. Malik Williams will also see increased carries for the Cardinals’ offense.
The biggest losses on offense will be felt in the receiving corps. Louisville lost their top three targets in receivers James Quick and Jamari Staples, and tight end Cole Hikutini. Combined they accounted for 131 receptions, 2,052 yards, and 16 touchdowns. That’s a lot of production to replace, but Louisville has the talent in place so a major drop-off likely won’t be felt. Jaylen Smith sits at the top of the depth chart after finishing 2016 with 599 yards and six touchdowns. Trevon Samuel and Reggie Bonnafon will be heavily used in the receiving rotation as well after combining for 389 yards and six touchdowns last season.
Previewing Louisville’s Defense
The attention in 2016 was all on Louisville’s offense, but the defensive unit was equally impressive. The Cardinals only gave up 3,795 yards, good enough for ninth in the country, while allowing 23.3 points per game, which ranked 34th. New defensive coordinator Peter Sirmon comes from Mississippi State and looks to use a similar scheme as 2016.
Along the defensive line, Louisville will have to replace two of their three sack leaders in Devonte Fields and DeAngelo Brown. Senior Drew Bailey will be the primary lineman looked at to replace their production. Bailey finished 2016 with 58 tackles and nine tackles for loss while also picking up two sacks. Kyle Shortridge lines up at the nose tackle spot and looks to anchor a young, inexperienced line.
The linebacker and secondary groups are the strength of this defense and have talent across the board. At linebacker, the stars of the show will be James Hearns and Trevon Young. The duo have gotten some major praise from their co-defensive coordinator Lorenzo Ward, who was also the defensive coordinator at South Carolina.
I don’t think either one of them (Hearns and Young) is as good as Jadeveon Clowney but I think they have speed and quickness that they we didn’t have (at South Carolina),Devin Taylor can’t rush the pass rusher like James Hearns and Trevon Young can.
Hearns led the team last season in sacks with eight, and was second in tackles for loss with 11. Young missed all of 2016 with an injury he suffered in Louisville’s 2015 bowl game, but Petrino says he looks to be back to his old form. Young, who racked up 10 tackles for loss and 8.5 sacks in 2015, will look to bounce back this season.
Jaire Alexander and Chucky Williams are two of the self-described “Tax Boys.” They say they’re going to make people pay in 2017 pic.twitter.com/dQaXxIZgdi— John Lewis WDRB (@JohnWDRB) August 2, 2017
Louisville’s secondary returns four starters and look to make a major impact in the ACC. While giving up 206.3 passing yards a game isn’t ideal, this unit is teeming with quality playmakers. Cornerback Jaire Alexander is the star of the group, is in the conversation for the Thorpe Award, and is seen as a possible first-round pick in the 2018 NFL Draft.
Alexander finished with five interceptions and nine pass deflections, and allowed a QB rating of only 61.6, according to PFF. Safety Chucky Williams will help Alexander out in the secondary after leading the team in tackles with 107 last year, while also adding 10 tackles for loss and three interceptions. Nicknamed the Tax Boys, this Louisville secondary strives to improve and looks to be one of the nation’s best.
Three Key Games
1. Sept. 16 vs Clemson - The Cardinals get an early season test when the defending champion Clemson Tigers come to town. The teams have only met three times, all since 2014, and Louisville has yet to beat the Tigers. Last season Louisville went into Death Valley and nearly came away with a win, but came up a few yards short in an exhilarating 42-36 loss. Clemson lost leader Deshaun Watson to the NFL but coach Dabo Swinney’s team is still loaded with talent. The Cardinals will have to beat the champs in order to show early on that they are a major threat.
2. Oct. 21 at Florida State - As important a game as Louisville-Clemson is, the matchup with Florida State will be an even bigger game in the ACC. Last season, the Seminoles were embarrassed by a score of 62-20 in what was seen as Jackson’s coming out party. The ‘Noles will look to even the score at home this season and, with one of the most talented rosters in college football, they might just do it. This game will go a long way in determining the ACC Atlantic Division, especially if Louisville can beat Clemson earlier in the year.
3. Nov. 25th vs Kentucky - After a 9-1 start, the wheels fell off for Louisville in the regular season and it was capped off by a loss to rival Kentucky. The Wildcats forced a late Jackson fumble and turned it into a game-winning field goal that derailed any hope the Cardinals had in playing in a major bowl game. Expect Louisville to be focused on their in-state rival and avoid a letdown for the second consecutive year.
The 2017 season will come down to the Clemson and Florida State games. If they win both, then it’s all clear for them to take the ACC Atlantic title and play in the title game. If they lose one or both, then Louisville will most likely be in the same situation as last season. I can see them getting by Clemson early on, especially as the Tigers try to find their identity post-Watson. Florida State is too talented at every level and, with the pressure from last season’s beatdown, the Seminoles will get their revenge. All in all I see the Cardinals finishing 11-1 and playing a New Year’s bowl game.
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