Louisville…it’s not necessarily a name that strikes fear in the hearts of gridiron opponents. Largely thought of as a basketball power, the Cardinals have never really been a football powerhouse, even in the best of years under current (in his second stint) head coach and offensive mastermind Bobby Petrino.
That’s one reason that many viewed the announcement of a season-opening match-up between the Jackson-less Cardinals and the defending champion Alabama Crimson Tide as lackluster, at best. The Tide, under Nick Saban, has typically played a strong opponent in the opener to set the tone for seasons that led to championships. This year, however, many cast a dim eye upon the opponent Bama will face: a one-trick pony of an offense with a putrid defense featuring its third coordinator in as many years.
But don’t sleep on the Cardinals under Petrino. Though Alabama is currently favored by more than three touchdowns, there are many unanswered questions that could affect the outcome. Let’s ponder a few points.
No Action Jackson, but plenty of Pass
Much has been made of the fact that 2016 Heisman winner Lamar Jackson has moved on to the pro ranks, leaving the Cardinals with an untested starter under center. Though redshirt sophomore Juwan Pass is green as a starter after waiting behind the durable and explosive Jackson, he seems well-suited to take on the mantle of Petrino passers of the past. If there’s one thing we know about Petrino, it’s that he knows how to coach up his quarterbacks, and he surrounds them with the schemes and tools to make the most of their natural gifts.
Many assumed after his success with Jackson that he’d transition to a more mobile style of quarterback moving forward. However, Pass is not that kind of signal-caller. His skill set and ability is more reminiscent of Ryan Mallett and Tyler Wilson than Jackson, as the big quarterback measures in at 6-4 and 231 pounds. He has a big body, and an equally big arm. Though the returns are still early (he only has 29 passing attempts in live action), it appears that Pass is an efficient pro-style pocket passer who can stand tall in the pocket and sling the ball.
If Pass fits the bill of Petrino quarterbacks of the past, expect to see the offensive wizard develop a scheme to attack Alabama’s retooled secondary. The Tide graduated all its starters from last year’s stellar unit, and with four (or five in nickel) brand new faces in the back field, one can expect the Louisville offense to target them early and often.
Pass will be helped early on by the presence of a big, physical, seasoned wide receiver corps that returns the three top targets from 2017. Petrino offenses spread the ball around, make no mistake about it. The coach prides himself on keeping defenses off balance by leveraging size and speed mismatches against overwhelmed defenses. Fortunately for the Cardinals, the offense has a cadre of tall speedsters who will play havoc on defenses that fail to properly match-up.
Leading the way is senior Jaylen Smith (6-4, 223 pounds), Jackson’s favorite target from a year ago. Smith is as explosive as he is big, and he torched ACC defenses last season for 980 yards on 60 receptions. He’s joined by two equally effective running mates in the starting WR trio, with junior Seth Dawkins (6-3, 210 pounds) and sophomore Dez Fitzpatrick (6-2, 202 pounds) keeping opposing secondaries off balance. Both Dawkins and Fitzpatrick had strong showings in 2017 (42 catches for 642 yards and 45 catches for 699 yards, respectively), and the trio of receivers accounted for 20 touchdowns last season.
The WR corps is deep too, as sophomores Josh Johnson (5-11, 177 pounds), Corey Reed (6-3, 202 pounds), and Keion Wakefield (5-11, 182 pounds) bring a well-rounded skill set to the Cardinal offensive attack. Add in tight ends Micky Crum (6-4, 255 pounds), Jordan Davis (6-4, 253 pounds), and Kemari Averett (6-6, 271 pounds), and you can see how one could be excited about the Cardinal air attack in 2018.
Test in the Trenches
Though Petrino offenses are typically thought of in terms of the prolific passing attack, another trademark of teams that he has coached is the presence of a hard-nosed, physical running game. Petrino is typically pass happy, but a key component of any pro-style offenses is the between-the-tackles running game. It doesn’t matter how flashy a quarterback and his receivers can be, if they can’t run the ball effectively, a defense can key in on tendencies and shut down the air.
To that end, Petrino has a stable of beastly backs that, though new to starting roles, are well-suited for what they’ll be asked to do in the Cardinal offense. The top three Louisville backs are all of the battering ram variety: all of them stand over six feet tall, they all weigh over 225 pounds, and they all averaged more than five yards per carry (in admittedly limited action). The Cardinal backfield looks like it could have been pulled from the Nick Saban recruiting manual, as they are big, tough, physical, and run with low centers of gravity with deceptive speed.
Veteran junior running back Trey Smith (6-0, 225 pounds) seems to have staked his claim to the starting role after several years as a reserve. Because of previously scant playing time, Smith only has 21 career carries for 124 yards. However, the word coming out of Louisville is that Smith has put in the work this summer, and is running like a man on a mission, which could be cause for concern for the Tide as it breaks in new starters at the nose and ILB positions.
Rotating with Smith will be sophomore Dae Williams (6-2, 228 pounds) and freshman Colin Wilson (6-1, 231 pounds). Both are bangers with burst, and when they are swapped in to relieve Smith, the transition will appear almost seamless.
Compounding the potential power of the Cardinals’ ground game is the fact that they return four veteran starters to an offensive line that improved in 2017. Between LT Linwood Foy (6-4, 299 pounds), LG Kenny Thomas (6-6, 320 pounds), C Robby Bell (6-5, 298 pounds), RG Lukayus McNeil (6-6, 300 pounds), and RT Mekhi Becton (6-7, 359 pounds), that unit has 77 combined starts. Expect Petrino to leverage the massive right side of the line behind McNeil and Becton, as the pair of man-mountains could be quite effective in opening seams for the physical running attack.
Much Like Bama’s own defense for 2018, the Cardinals will feature several new faces in key positions. Unlike Alabama, however, they won’t be replacing those veterans from a stockpile of five-star talent. The secondary, for example, will rely on players who were not previously starters almost exclusively. Though they are green, many have been in the program for several years. Unfortunately, that may not translate to much of an advantage, as many started their time in Louisville under defensive coordinator Todd Grantham, who was replaced with Peter Sirmon, who has subsequently been replaced by Brian VanGorder.
For a unit that struggled in pass defense the previous year, a wholesale change in talent may not be a bad thing. Louisville has done the work in the transfer market to add a few role players to an emerging secondary unit, bringing over corners P.J. Mbasanor from Oklahoma, Rodjay Burns from Ohio State, and four-star Juco standout Marlon Character Jr. to bolster the ranks. The existing roster isn’t terrible either, with former four-star corner Russ Yeast (5-11, 188 pounds) and Lamarques Thomas (6-0, 184 pounds) on the edges, and Dee Smith (6-1, 204 pounds) and Khane Pass (6-1, 206 pounds) at free and strong safety, respectively. The talent may develop eventually for the Cardinals in pass defense, but at least early on, they will struggle with whichever Bama quarterback wins the starting role and the Tide’s speedy, athletic receivers.
There are no sure things in the front seven, either, at least not outside of defensive end/ OLB hybrid Jonathan Greenard (6-4, 261 pounds). The junior is easily the most experienced, most dynamic playmaker along the Louisville defensive front, but the Cardinals will need some others to emerge if Greenard is going to have the room to do what he does best and create havoc.
The VanGorder Conundrum
When Petrino hired VanGorder, few in the Louisville fanbase rejoiced. Sure, the well-traveled defensive coordinator has a seemingly nice pedigree: he has ties to the SEC, coached in the NFL, and has a long resume full of stops at defensive schools.
However, VanGorder likewise has little experience improving those defenses he’s helmed. At best, he has held the rope for those who hired him, making little progress while keeping listing ships afloat during his respective tenures. For a school that already had a top-caliber defense, a VanGorder hire could be a neutral proposition that buys time for a better candidate to emerge. But for a team like Louisville that has been wracked with defensive woes for the last several years, maintenance of the status quo is problematic.
Don’t expect the 2018 edition of the Cardinal defense to break trends for themselves or their new defensive coordinator. Both will likely continue to wallow in mediocrity, as the Cardinal defense has been plagued with a lack of coaching continuity and features wholesale rebuilding efforts in the front seven and defensive backfield. Against a team with as much offensive talent as the Tide boasts, the opener could be the beginning of a very trying season for the Louisville defense.
Few give the Cardinals much chance of knocking off the Tide, but they probably aren’t as inept an opponent as many suspect. They match up well with Alabama in terms of size, though they lack experience at many positions (especially on defense.) Yet again, the flagship of Petrino’s team will be the offense, and the Cardinals will live and die by that sword. If Pass can ignite the offense the way his predecessor did, the Cardinals should at least have a chance at winning nine games and turning in a respectable season in what most would consider a rebuilding year. But if the offense is called upon to carry the load for a defense that simply can’t stop the bleeding, the more reasonable expectation for the Cards could be a fifth-place finish in the ACC Atlantic.