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College Football Preview 2017-2018: 20. Louisville Cardinals

20. Louisville Cardinals

They're good, but are they at Clemson/FSU's level?

  • Location: Louisville, KY. 
  • Conference: ACC (Atlantic)
  • Schedule
  • Roster
  • Coach: Bobby Petrino (fourth year)
  • Last Years Record: 9-4 (7-1 ACC)
  • Bowl Result: Loss in Citrus Bowl


Entering last season, Louisville appeared to be at an interesting place in the ACC Atlantic. The Cardinals had tons of talent on both sides of the ball, but were inside a division with two Top 5 teams, and had to face a tough Houston team in the non-conference. However, the Cardinals quickly seemed to be perhaps better than originally thought, pounding Charlotte, Syracuse and then second-ranked Florida State behind the play of QB Lamar Jackson, who announced his Heisman candidacy in exciting fashion. Yet, Louisville's early dominance wouldn't last; they were unable to beat Deshaun Watson and Clemson in a thriller, then struggled mightily as November came around, losing their final two regular season games. A Citrus Bowl loss to LSU in which the Cards managed just nine points showed there is plenty to work on as Louisville looks ahead to 2017. Even so, with Jackson leading the charge, and a talented defense, Louisville is almost certainly to still be a major factor in the crowded ACC race. 

Lamar Jackson
Offense: To call Lamar Jackson simply electrifying may be a serious understatement. The true junior quarterback ran all over, threw all-around and jumped over defenders en route to a season where he had over 5,000 yards of total offense and 51 touchdowns, and of course, a Heisman. Despite his lengthy list of accomplishments, Jackson still has plenty to improve on. He did pass the ball pretty well throughout 2016 but he still has to improve his accuracy and contain his sometimes erratic throws. Jackson also still has to prove doubters wrong who point to his second half struggles as a reason why he shouldn't have won the Heisman. A major help for Jackson will be an improved offensive line, as the Cardinals were extremely porous on the unit a year ago, allowing an ACC-high 47 sacks. Two starters are back but they both are very good, in juniors Geron Christian and Lukayus McNeil. Christian is going to start at the always-important left tackle spot, while McNeil, an established run blocker, should start at a guard spot. The rest of the group is a relative mystery, as a number of position battles unfold. The hope is that some of the young guys take major steps forward, or else they are going to be shredded by the Florida States and the Clemsons of the conference. Jackson will also likely have to make do without a number of his top targets after the top three receivers all departed. The cupboard is far from bare at the position, though, with guys like junior Jaylen Smith and senior Reggie Bonnafon both returning. Smith had 27 catches for 599 yards a year ago and proved to be a very reliable weapon who can good, crisp routes. He doesn't have the insane explosiveness or athleticism other top receivers do in the conference, but he should be effective all the same. Bonnafon is a converted quarterback who has shown plenty of potential at receiver, but is still learning some of the finer things about the position. Expect junior Devante Peete, sophomore Seth Dawkins and perhaps even true freshman Joshua Johnson to see targets as well in the spread offense. At tight end, Louisville is looking to break in a new starter, but junior Micky Crum looked very good in the spring. With Jackson running all over, the Cardinals' serious problems at running back were masked. However, the position has long been a problem for Louisville and needs to truly find a feature back for the offense to really take the next step forward. Senior Jeremy Smith is very experienced and rock-solid, but it's hard to know how high his ceiling is. There is a chance true freshman Colin Wilson gets a chance at starting-level carries as he arrives on campus as the best running back recruit Louisville and Petrino have landed since Michael Bush. 

Jaire Alexander
Defense: While Louisville's offense sputtered down the stretch, the defense also struggled, allowing 35 points per game over their final three game losing streak, which included being shredded by a bad LSU offense in the bowl game. The good news is that the Cardinals return plenty of talent at all three levels of their defense and have a new look, as defensive coordinator Peter Sirmon arrives after leading the Mississippi State defense for a season. The defensive line will be forced to replace two impressive pass rushers in Devonte Fields and DeAngelo Brown. Fields, an outside linebacker/end hybrid, originally began his career at TCU before ending up at Louisville. His six sacks will certainly be missed, as will Brown's fantastic rush defense abilities, which helped him record 13 tackles for loss in '16. Those losses will put more pressure on the unit's lone returning starter, senior Drew Bailey. Bailey isn't quite the natural pass rusher that Fields was, but had 58 tackles a year ago and seems to only be getting better. Senior Kyle Shortridge is the presumed favorite to take over defensive tackle duties now that Brown has moved on, but could be pushed by impressive young tackle Caleb Tillman, who oozes with potential. Louisville has two very good linebackers back in seniors Stacy Thomas and James Hearns. Hearns will take over Fields' role as the team's premier pass rushing threat off the edge (11 TFLs, 8 sacks in 2016) and should use his NFL-size frame to his advantage. Thomas has had a lengthy injury history, but emerged as one of the team's most consistent defenders a season ago. After picking up 85 tackles last year, he'll hope to see that number increase in a big way as he returns at an inside linebacker spot. Junior Isaac Stewart played very well in a reserve role last year for the Cardinals, and should be ready to help out Thomas at the other ILB position. The secondary is going to be the clear-cut strength for this defense. The group performed pretty well last season, allowing 207.1 yards per game, which was fifth in the conference and 37th nationally. All four starters are back, including the real studs of the group, cornerback Jaire Alexander and safety Chucky Williams. Alexander had a big game on national TV against Clemson, and the junior's star has only continued to rise since then. He is still working on consistency and some of the finer points of cornerback play, but he had five interceptions last year and nine pass deflections in 2016, and is always ready to make a big play. Meanwhile, Chucky Williams led the Cards in tackles last year, recording a whopping 107 tackles. Williams is easily the most rangy defender on this team, truly doing it all, getting in the backfields with 10 tackles for loss and jumping passing routes, with three interceptions. Senior Trumaine Washington is going to start alongside Alexander at the other corner spot, while hard-hitting veteran Zykiesis Cannon is going to start at free safety. Overall, the group has the playmaking (Alexander) and overall experience it needs to be absolutely dominant, which gives them a major advantage in a conference with plenty of quality quarterbacks.

Special Teams: Sophomores Blanton Creque and Mason King both return at kicker and punter, respectively, but it's hard to know how good they really are. Creque attempted just 19 field goals last season and did make 16, but Petrino's aggressive offensive approach doesn't rely on the kicking game very much, while King was inconsistent through 2016. Jaire Alexander is going to be a major threat in the return game, where he'll most likely handle punt return duties.

Despite all the impressive accomplishments last year's team was able to achieve, there has to be a sense of frustration about the way it ended, which should only motivate the 2017 edition that much more. Jackson still has to improve as a passer to really take the next step but he should keep the offense humming, while this defense is one of the more experienced in the ACC. The big question is whether that will be enough to overcome both Florida State and Clemson in the Atlantic Division, both of whom appear to be Top 5 teams? If this team can cut down on turnovers (107th in turnover margin last season) and maintain their focus over an entire season a division title isn't completely out of the question. However, the most likely scenario? A third-place finish in the division and another good, not great, bowl game.

Player to Watch
Reggie Bonnafon, WR
Once Louisville's starting quarterback, senior Reggie Bonnafon has converted full-time to receiver, able to maximize his impressive speed and explosiveness. One of the more experienced wide outs on the roster, Louisville will look to him to be one of their top targets, but offensive coordinators Lonnie Galloway and Mike Summers will be creative with other ways to get him the ball. With his skill set, he could also play halfback, QB in a Wildcat look or even help out as a returner.

Five-Year Trend
2012: 11-2 (7-2 Big East)*
2013: 12-1 (7-1 AAC)*
2014: 9-4 (5-3 ACC)*
2015: 8-5 (5-3 ACC)*
2016: 9-4 (7-1 ACC)*

*= Bowl appearance

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