I’ve been secretly dying to do this Q&A with Card Chronicle. Alongside us, Bruins Nation, Outside the Sidelines, Dawg Sports, etc., Card Chronicle wasone of the very first SBN sites way back in the days. And, they have developed a very strong readership along the way. But, even moreso, they’ve developed a great reputation as straight shooters. We like reaching out with fellow old-timers. So, we got a bit wordy sitting down with John (CardinalStrong) over there.
This is part one of a two-part look at the Louisville Cardinals. Our Q&A with them went live on the site yesterday, and you can check out their work at the always-excellent Card Chronicle site. Feel free to give John follow on social media. The Twitter machine link for CC is here (AOL users, copy and paste) www.twitter.com/cardchronicle.)
1. What does Juwon Pass (briefly a verbal commit to Alabama) bring to the offense that Lamar Jackson may not have? Or, is he cut from a similar cloth? Or, do we even know from camp and relief appearances what his strengths and weaknesses may be?
It’s safe to say the jury is still out on what will come of the Jawon “Puma” Pass era of Louisville football. One thing is certain though; even with the laundry list of great quarterbacks who have come through UofL no one has had the challenge of following a Heisman Trophy winner. Pass got limited reps last year as a Redshirt Freshman with almost all of them coming in non-pressure situations and the game squarely in hand. He dropped in some absolutely beautiful balls on a few occasions last year but threw in a couple head scratchers here and there as well. Since being handed the reins back in January Petrino has tried to openly motivate him into a being a more vocal leader and treating the team as if it’s his own, but while Pass’ more reserved demeanor may frustrate Petrino at times he has been praised ten times over for being calm and collected in the pocket, never getting rattled when they throw everything at him, a skill that will likely be necessary here in a week or so.
While we’ve never seen a Puma Pass offense for more than a few plays Petrino confirmed a few weeks ago they will likely lean more towards his prototypical offense that fans saw during his first stint at Louisville with a more balanced run/pass attack, wide open formations, and more wheel routes than a monster truck show. Pass is no Lamar, but neither is anyone else. I’d expect to see Puma in the pocket probably 80% of the time, trying to just get some easy completions early and let his playmakers work. As the game progresses you know Petrino will take some shots downfield a few times, but do not be surprised to see some “Lamar-esque” play calls with RPOs or the inverted veer. Jawon isn’t the fastest guy on the team but he can cover some ground quick with his 6-4 frame if the defense gives him space. First start of his career isn’t going to be easy, but I think he will surprise some folks with how well he handles it.
2. From the outside, this feels like a transitional season for the Cardinals, but a bigger one for Bobby Petrino. He’s always had wandering eyes for the next Big Thing, and you can’t really fault someone for wanting a supposedly better job. But, do you think this is the year he demonstrates to his skeptics that he’s fully bought-in; that Louisville is the destination rather than the stepping stone? As such a tarnished commodity, do you think he’s here for the long run? Have the fans ever really forgiven him for the Auburn debacle 15 years ago?
Locally, you can ask any UofL fan about Petrino and the answer will be almost universal, the Bobby Petrino that walked back through the doors at Louisville in 2014 is not the same Bobby Petrino that left the program back in 2007. For some fans that’s great, for others…not so much.
Let me explain.
The sting of losing Petrino a season after he had them on the doorstep of a National Championship run (yes, ‘Bama fans, 2006 Louisville was a Championship caliber team) was quickly washed away for some when he was replaced with (cringes) Steve Kragthrope who in two seasons destroyed all momentum Louisville had built the previous five. Many would have taken Petrino back that very moment even after he ran out of town with no warning. Why? Because he was ruthless, showed no mercy, he stacked up points, played exciting football, and most importantly, he won.
With the arrival of Charlie Strong in 2009 and the return to the national spotlight the love affair with BP cooled off because Louisville proved they could win with someone else at the helm. Fast forward a few years and fans saw the writing on the wall that Strong was leaving sooner than later and with the fear of hiring another Kragthrope the majority pushed hard to go get a revitalized Bobby Petrino at WKU. A small group wanted no part of his return but their voice was squashed by the masses clamoring for points and wins.
Since his return in 2014, Petrino has shown zero interest in leaving Louisville, and he has said multiple times he wants to end his coaching career here. Honestly, I believe him. Don’t tell him I said this but it’s noticeable that he’s much calmer and more collected than he was during his first stint and to say he’s ‘planted roots’ here would be a massive understatement. Both of Petrino’s daughters live in Louisville with one running the ‘Petrino Family Foundation’ and is married to Defensive Line Coach LD Scott, and the other daughter is married to his new Linebacker Coach, Ryan Beard. Also, one of his son’s (Nick) is the Card’s current Quarterbacks Coach. Petrino leaving the program tomorrow would literally impact his entire family and three other jobs on the Cards staff.
While many would consider that stability a good thing, others want back the Petrino with an edge. The guy who was coaching to get the next big job. The guy who would punch you in the throat and steal your girlfriend…but would drop 70 points and win games while doing it. Bobby 2.0 as we refer to it around here has been so-so, in my opinion. It’s tough to argue with a Top 5 ranking late into the season two years ago and Heisman in the trophy case, but also tough to defend losses to Boston College, Wake Forest, and Kentucky over that same span. If you ask an average fan, Bobby is forgive — but he better start winning some more ballgames.
3. The Cardinals have had two bugaboos the past few seasons. We’ll address these in turn. The first is the offensive line: when adjusted for yards-to-go, the Cardinals last season were middling-to-below-average in standard passing downs (49), stuffs allowed at the line of scrimmage (31), and sacks surrendered in passing downs (86th). The chains were shortened significantly with Lamar, who led an offense that put up seven-and-a-half yards a play, which did wonders in short yardage situations. But, still, when placed in standard down territory, the line just average. How has that been addressed this year?
Only two bugaboos, Erik? That’s quite generous of you.
The truth of the matter is this, Lamar Jackson was bright red band-aid for a lot of different offensive issues. What may surprise you and your readers is that many, myself included, viewed the offensive line as having a great season last year. Why you may ask, considering the numbers speak otherwise? Because the two seasons prior they were downright atrocious. In 2015 Louisville finished 126th and 121st nationally in ‘sacks allowed’ and ‘tackles for loss allowed’, respectively. In 2016 they once again finished 126th in ‘sacks allowed’ and 94th in ‘TFL’. It wasn’t just bad, it was physically painful to watch.
Last year Petrino made the change many were looking for and brought back Mike Summers to coach the O-line. With a slew of young talent (and one big addition) Summers bumped them up into an average unit that allowed Louisville to field the 3rd ranked offense in the country in 2017. As you pointed out the stats aren’t blowing you away but the eye test for fans was a huge success. In 2018, Summers is back running the show and the Cards return one of the most efficient freshman in the country last year in the 6-7 355lb Mekhi Becton, playing left tackle. Last season at one point in time UofL was starting 3 freshmen on the O-line, not great at the time, but a huge boost in confidence heading into 2018.
With this group having only lost one player to the draft last year (Geron Christian,) I think the experience bump and another season under Summers will be huge in their development. Also, as crazy as it may sound, the “standard” Petrino offense may yield slightly better results than the offense that was obviously geared toward Lamar and his bag of tricks.
4. The second issue, obviously, is the defense. Ignoring raw data like yards surrendered, the Cardinals defense was simply not very good last season: It did not finish above 74th in any opponent adjusted defensive category. And, in outings versus ranked teams, it surrendered 47, 39, and 31 points -- all losses. Where does the blame lie here? Coaching? Depth? Recruiting? Scheme? Some indeterminate X factor?
I am not a fan of blaming coaches for consistently poor performance. Sure, coaching can play a part in the grand scheme of things, but the players have to go out and execute, right?
Well, in regards to the defense last year I can sleep well at night blaming…ummm, lets call it…95% of it on the coach. For a reason still unbeknownst to pretty much everyone, Petrino went and hired Peter Sirmon last year from Mississippi State to replace the departed Todd Grantham. Sirmon only had one year as a DC under his belt, and it was not good. Fans tried to give Sirmon a shot as a young coach who was still looking to solidify his philosophy but early in the year his defense was struggling…a lot.
The down and distance formations didn’t make sense, he hardly ever applied any pressure, and the secondary (missing an injured Jaire Alexander) was getting sliced up. In the past few months news has slowly leaked that the team just never bought into what Sirmon was preaching, and a secondary with at least three players playing their final season had a somewhat “I’m not ruining my career for this guy” attitude that divided some units. Not good.
If you gave Petrino a drink of truth serum, well you could probably get some pretty good stories in general, but in relation to the defensive coordinator, I think he would have fired Sirmon midway through the year if he could avoid the PR hit for having three defensive coordinators in three seasons. In the end he had to pull the trigger anyway and went and got Brian VanGorder — likely the best hire he could have made in that situation.
BVG will field a better defense by proxy alone, but a group of transfers and underclassmen with some more reps under their belt will look to transform a bad defense to a respectable one. The Cards bring in Rodjay Burns from Ohio State, PJ Mbanasor from Texas A&M, and the #1 JUCO corner and former Auburn player Marlon Character. Those three alone, with incoming freshman Chandler Jones, look to singlehandedly transform the Secondary into a completely new unit. The defensive line will look to get a boost from a couple players caught out of position in the base 3-4 Sirmon ran last season and they also add three new guys to the rotation as well in South Carolina transfer Boosie Whitlow, JUCO addition Jared Goldwire, and late qualifier Michael Boykin. Just in those two groups alone you could potentially see 5 or 6 players on defense in 2018 that didn’t play a single snap for the Cards in 2017. That’s one way to change things up quickly, I guess. Similar to the story of the O-line above I think fans would love it if the Cards could just be average again on defense working their way back into a Top 25 unit in Total Defense, a spot they held seven straight seasons entering 2017.
5. Related, the Cardinals just have not generated much of a pass rush, either from the down lineman or the ‘backer (just 22 sacks last season). Where will Louisville get its pressure from this year?
I have them down as getting 27 sacks last year, but it’s kind of like saying “did I just cut my pinkie finger off or my ring finger off?” It ain’t good either way. [Ed. Note: It is 27. I shall now fall back upon my Alabama public education as an excuse.]
Often the fan base can scream and yell about something that just doesn’t align with what the statistics are saying, but last year the fans were right: Louisville never pressured the football. First down run for 4 yards, second down incompletion, and then on third down the Cards drop back into coverage, let the QB work, and eventually find his man for 7-yard gain. Rinse and repeat.
The aggravating part was that the few seasons prior, with Todd Grantham running the show, they blitzed out of their mind. In fact, in 2014 and 2015 they were Top 10 nationally in sacks. To compound the issue, the front 3 never got a great push. In fact, only two linemen last year recorded a sack at all, with all the rest coming from the LB corps or secondary.
In 2018, I think the shift back to 4-3 will certainly help, and a few of the guys I mentioned earlier (Boosie Whitlow, Michael Boykin) were brought in specifically to rush the passer. A few new bodies and a more “aggressive” defensive philosophy should improve those numbers this season.
Our special thanks to John for his time. We’ll have Part Two tomorrow.