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College Football Preview 2020: 25. Louisville Cardinals

25. Louisville Cardinals

The surprising success of Scott Satterfield's first season could lead to an even greater encore in 2020

Tutu Atwell

Offense: Louisville's 2018 offense was one of the worst in Power Five football, averaging under 20 points per game. Those numbers changed rapidly under the leadership of new head coach Scott Satterfield and his staff, as the Cardinals improved to 33.1 PPG (31st nationally). With all the talent back in Louisville, it wouldn't be surprising to see that number again make a jump.

Jawon Pass entered last season as the presumed starter, but he was quickly overtaken by Micale Cunningham (previously Malik). Cunningham was always a great runner, but his passing numbers were surprisingly strong in 2019. He finished with 2,061 yards and 22 touchdowns on the year, while limiting his turnovers. You would still like to see Cunningham become more confident throwing down the field, but he's a smart decision-maker that has proven he can move the chains. He ran for 482 yards a year ago, and teams also have to always respect his legs. Pass returns as the presumed backup, but it will be interesting to see if he decides to transfer.

The biggest surprise on the Cardinals' offense last season was the emergence of Javian Hawkins at tailback. Hawkins ended up rushing for 1,525 yards and nine scores, taking advantage of an offense that put a much larger emphasis on the run than the previous unit under Bobby Petrino. He was truly dominant at moments, including a 233-yard performance against Syracuse in late November. Hawkins will enter 2020 as one of the ACC's best, and one of the more underrated playmakers in the entire country. Joining him will be veteran Hassan Hall, set to begin his junior year as a change-of-pace option. Hall isn't the home run hitter that Hawkins is, but he has a little more size and power to him, eclipsing 500 yards in '19. That 1-2 punch will be the fuel to this Louisville offense, even if Cunningham takes strides as a passer. 

For all the success that this offense and rushing attack had last fall, the offensive line was surprisingly terrible. Beyond Mekhi Becton, it was terribly inconsistent and lacked much punch in either run or pass blocking. The Cardinals allowed the most tackles for loss in the nation last year, and that was with Becton in the fold. Now that Becton is off to the NFL, some other pieces are going to have to step up. Seniors Cole Bentley and Ronnie Bell have played a lot of snaps, but are still looking to develop more consistency. At left tackle, the favorite to replace Becton is junior Adonis Boone, who has upside but is certainly unproven.

With their talented backfield trio in place, it's easy to overlook the playmakers the Cardinals can also feature on the outside. 5'9" dynamo Tutu Atwell was criminally under-utilized by the old coaching staff, but he really broke out last fall. Atwell averaged 18.4 yards per reception a season ago, showcasing a blend of playmaking abilities. He can hit you over the top deep, open things up off screens, or get to the perimeter and make things happen on sweep plays. Atwell even threw a touchdown pass last year, and it will be fascinating to see all the different ways Louisville uses him. He's one of my favorite players in the country looking ahead to 2020. The Cards can also feature two traditional pass-catchers in tight end Marshon Ford and receiver Dez Fitzpatrick. Fitzpatrick has been very reliable his first three years on the team, and is coming off a 635-yard 2019. Meanwhile, Ford really flashed something special, catching seven touchdown passes in '19. With teams forced to focus so much on Atwell, these Cardinal receivers are going to continue getting opportunities.

Outside of Becton, every crucial piece to this Louisville offense remains in the fold for 2020. This is a real opportunity for these guys to showcase what they can do, and I'm excited to see what new looks Satterfield and staff cook up. If the O-Line can at least be serviceable, I don't think it's crazy to think the Cardinals can have the second best offense in the ACC, behind only Clemson. They have the versatility and playmaking to do it, now it's just about putting that product out on the field.

Defense: Bryan Brown is known as a high-energy guy who followed Satterfield over from Applachian State to become Louisville's defensive coordinator. He needed all that energy to turn around a defense that had one of the worst statistical seasons in Louisville football history. There were certainly some growing pains for Brown and this defense in 2019, but there is hope on the horizon.

Louisville's rush defense was still one of the worst in the ACC last fall, and changing that relies on the defensive line making some improvements. It's a group that has potential, but will be losing one of it's most important pieces in the form of G.G. Robinson, who graduated. Robinson was second on the team in sacks a year ago with four, and he was a real leader for the group. His spot on the interior is likely to be taken by veteran Jared Goldwire, who has proven he can contribute. He had 22 tackles in a rotational role last season, and four tackles for loss. The Cardinals would really like to see one of their defensive ends have a breakout campaign, and there are several possibilities on who that might be. Junior Malik Clark has a real nose for the football, and will compete for steps along with Dayne Kinniard and Tabarius Peterson.

No matter what happens with the D-Line, the Cardinals should feel good about the returning talent in the linebacker corps. It's a group that is a little bit undersized by ACC standards, but that allows them to do things a little bit differently than other defenses. Three of the top four tackles from last season reside in this unit, including inside linebackers C.J. Avery and Dorian Etheridge, as well as outside 'backer Rodjay Burns. I'm a huge fan of Burns, a former Ohio State cornerback who eventually made the switch to linebacker. He bulked up to fit the position more naturally, but still offers a lot of speed and explosiveness for the position. Burns is a disruptive presence (11 tackles for loss) that can also use his natural coverage skills to make things happen. Avery and Etheridge are also pretty versatile for their position, both proving themselves in run support and showing coverage abilities. Avery had six pass deflections, while Etheridge contributed five. Keep an eye on outside linebacker Monty Montgomery as well. The former JUCO transfer might not start, but he led the team in sacks a season ago.

There is progress to made in the back-end as well, although the Cardinals can feel good about the direction the unit is heading in. Louisville's pass defense took some major leaps in 2019, but still struggled with consistency and creating turnovers; they had just seven interceptions on the year. With a ton of depth and experience back, this could be one of the most improved units in the ACC. The likely starting cornerbacks are juniors Chandler Jones and Anthony Johnson. The pair of them have appeared in 48 total games during their respective UL tenures, with Jones having the talent to be an All-Conference player. He was sixth on the team with 50 tackles in 2019, and he also notched ten pass deflections. Also returning are a pair of safeties in Isaiah Hayes and Jack Fagot. Hayes began his career at Arizona before making the trek to the ACC, and he appeared able to acclimate to the defense well. Fagot could be in store for a breakout 2020 campaign; the rangy defender picked off Trevor Lawrence last fall, and can make plays all over the field. He's waited his turn in this UL secondary, but should start this season.

The defense was a complete mess when Scott Satterfield and this staff took over, and it will take more than just a year or two to completely turn things around. However, the group is making progress at nearly every level, and the trajectory for 2020 is looking up. There is experience throughout the defense, and significantly more depth than they had last fall. Now, if they can just find a way to create more turnovers, this unit could continue to climb up the totem pole in the ACC.

Special Teams: The graduation of placekicker Blanton Creque leaves Ryan Chalifoux as the favorite at the position for this next fall. He attempted three field goals a year ago, making one, while also going 22-25 on extra points. Punter is also a concern, as Mason King departs after averaging nearly 43 yards per punt in '19. The good news is that the return game has a lot of potential, but there is still work to be done for ST Coordinator Stu Holt.

Bottom Line: The reality of the ACC Atlantic right now is that nobody can match Clemson, but Louisville has the tools to at least come close. Their collection of offensive playmakers is second in the conference only to the Tigers, and the defense should continue to take the steps it needs to take in 2020. The big concern for Satterfield is not experiencing the "sophomore slump"; plenty of head coaches have had smashing debuts at their respective schools before things fell a little flat in Year Two. I don't see that happening here; this program has a clear upward trajectory bend, and the schedule seems to set up nicely for them. Outside of a date with Clemson, their first month-and-a-half should be a relative breeze, which should get the momentum they need to finish off a back-half that includes dates with Notre Dame and Kentucky. I don't think the Cardinals are going to overtake Clemson, but 9-10 wins seems entirely doable with the talent that is returning in the 'Ville.

Team Projections
Projected Record: 8-4 (5-3 ACC)
Offensive MVP: WR Tutu Atwell
Defensive MVP: LB Rodjay Burns
Breakout Player of the Year: CB Chandler Jones
Impact Freshman: LB Kameron Wilson

Recruiting Breakdown
The Cardinals break in the No. 42 Class in the country, according to 247Sports. Satterfield and his staff have clearly put an emphasis on getting back into Georgia and Florida and competing for a wide variety of prospects. Three-star outside linebacker Kameron Wilson already looks like a college football player, but he could be heading for a redshirt with the depth Louisville has returning at the position. The same could be said for fellow three-star Lovie Jenkins, a safety out of Ocoee, Florida. Jenkins was once a Tennessee commit, before flipping to the Cards in December. In terms of immediate impact, look no further than a pair of junior college transfers in Yaya Diaby and Trevor Reid, both out of Georgia Military College. Diaby is a guy that really impressed me when I saw his tape; he's a fearless competitor who never quits on the play. The strong-side defensive end could see immediate snaps for a Louisville pass rush that could use a bump.

Five-Year Trend

* As of publishing, we still do not know the effect that COVID-19 will have on the 2020 college football season beyond cancelled spring practice. It seems highly likely that there will be no fans or a shortened season, at the very least. This preview is operating under the optimistic assumption there will be a season, and even if it is delayed, teams will be able to get a full, 12-game schedule in. 

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