The ACC already features two of the nation’s best teams in Florida State and Clemson, but the Atlantic Division will get a little deeper with Louisville’s emergence in 2016. The Cardinals finished 2015 by winning six out of their last seven games and return 16 starters, including dynamic quarterback Lamar Jackson. The sophomore is surrounded by a solid supporting cast but needs better play from the offensive line. The defense – anchored by linebackers Devonte Fields and Keith Kelsey – should rank among the best in the ACC. The Cardinals also have a favorable schedule. Bobby Petrino’s team could be favored in nine games and hosts Florida State on Sept. 17.
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Previewing Louisville’s Offense
A surprising trend of winning with defense during the second Bobby Petrino era should end. So should two seasons of revolving quarterbacks. Lamar Jackson showed Kentucky and Texas A&M his game-breaking skills to close last season. He improved his accuracy and decision-making during the spring. Jackson led the Cards in passing and rushing last season and elevated himself to a fringe Heisman candidate with 227 yards passing, 226 rushing and four touchdowns (two rushing, two passing) during a Music City Bowl victory.
Petrino is comfortable with Jackson’s running skills but would be more comfortable if he took fewer hits. The top three running backs — Brandon Radcliff, Jeremy Smith and L.J. Scott — return, along with every important receiver and tight end. Jamari Staples averaged better than 17 yards per catch last season and emerged as the top deep threat. James Quick looked comfortable after moving into the slot.
All eyes remain on the offensive line, which too often struggled with run or pass-blocking last season. One reason was inexperience. The Cards relied on two true freshmen as well as a junior college transfer. Sophomores Geron Christian and Kenny Thomas, both 6'6" and 320 pounds, are determined to eliminate their first-year mistakes. Four starters return, and offensive line coach Chris Klenakis has been elevated to co-offensive coordinator.
Previewing Louisville’s Defense
, which includes an in-depth look at all 14 teams, features and predictions for the upcoming season.
The four best recruits that Louisville secured were the four players on Todd Grantham’s defense who considered entering the 2016 NFL Draft but chose to return for a final college season.
The group includes three of the unit’s top four tacklers — linebackers Keith Kelsey and Devonte Fields as well as free safety Josh Harvey-Clemons. Tackle DeAngelo Brown should replace NFL Draft pick Sheldon Rankins as the primary run stuffer. They’re all full-sized hitters with considerable experience.
This remains a unit that feasts on turnovers, snatching 17 interceptions and grabbing nine fumbles. The most dynamic playmaker in the group is Fields. He needed nearly half the season to return to the form that made him the Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year at TCU in 2012, delivering all but 2.5 of his 11.0 sacks in the final four games.
Previewing Louisville’s Specialists
John Wallace, the most prolific kicker in school history, has departed. So has Josh Appleby, a dependable punter. Mason King, a homegrown redshirt freshman, showed a powerful leg as a punter at St. Xavier High School. Four placekickers who played high school football in Kentucky will continue their fight to replace Wallace into fall camp. Jaire Alexander showed solid hands and the ability to change directions returning punts. Traveon Samuel, just 5'7", can hide behind blockers and find creases returning kickoffs.
This is the season Louisville expects to score and win the way the Cardinals scored and won during Petrino’s first four-year run at the program. The difference is those teams played in Conference USA and the Big East while this team competes in the Atlantic Division of the ACC and faces Clemson (away) and Florida State (home) during its first five games. There is also a daunting November trip to Houston, which won at Papa John’s Cardinal Stadium in 2015. After Jackson emerged as a formidable quarterback during the final two games in 2015, and with the four veteran playmakers as well as Grantham returning on defense, this is a team that should flirt with 10 wins in 2016. There are proven veterans at nearly every position. If the offensive line makes the expected jump to upgrade the running game, Louisville could surprise either Clemson or Florida State.