Louisville has had more high-profile seasons than 2014, but the Cardinals deserve credit for a successful first season in the ACC. Louisville moved into a tougher conference and had a revolving door at quarterback, yet still found a way to win nine games, including a road trip to Notre Dame. The Cards did this with a top-10 defense and 10 NFL draft picks. Louisville is in Year 2 under Bobby Petrino and in the ACC, but the challenge may be more steep than it was a year ago.
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Previewing Louisville’s Offense in 2015
Bobby Petrino isn’t much closer to settling on a quarterback than he was before the 2014 season. Arguments can be made for Reggie Bonnafon (the best runner), Kyle Bolin (he beat Kentucky), Will Gardner (if he can get healthy) or Tyler Ferguson (solid spring). Most favor Bonnafon because of his athleticism and youth, but the Cardinals could feature the same revolving door as last season.
Louisville lost three top receivers, so expect the Cards to run the ball early with Brandon Radcliff, who averaged 97 yards in the final three games against Notre Dame, Kentucky and Georgia. L.J. Scott and Jeremy Smith are solid backups. The coaches are also intrigued by Malin Jones, a transfer from Northwestern.
Who’s going to catch the football? The Cards are waiting for junior James Quick to fulfill the five-star hype he earned in high school. Quick struggled with drops and off-the-field issues last season. Two transfers must deliver at wide receiver — Ja’Quay Savage (Texas A&M) and Jamari Staples, who caught 31 passes for 458 yards and four scores at UAB last year. Tight end Keith Towbridge should blossom after splitting time with the departed Gerald Christian.
The offensive line needs work and experience after losing three starters. Center Tobijah Hughley is a former walk-on who earned a scholarship and a starting spot last season. Aaron Epps, a formidable run blocker, returns to anchor the right side. This could be a trouble spot in early games with Auburn and Clemson.
Previewing Louisville’s Defense in 2015
Petrino surprised by winning with defense last season, but the unit, which ranked in the top five nationally in total defense and scoring defense until melting down in the final two games, must replace seven starters.
The front seven remains formidable. Defensive ends Sheldon Rankins and Pio Vatuvei are solid run stoppers who can also pursue the quarterback. DeAngelo Brown is a 320-pound roadblock in the middle. The Cards added Devonte Fields, a former Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year while at TCU who played in junior college last year. He could have a huge impact.
Linebackers James Burgess, Keith Kelsey and Keith Brown were among the highest-rated recruits signed by the previous staff. They’re experienced and can make plays. Expect Henry Famurewa or Finesse Middleton to step in at weak-side linebacker.
You’ll need a program to identify the secondary, but Petrino is not as concerned as most coaches would be. Why? Two replacements are safety Josh Harvey-Clemons and cornerback Shaq Wiggins, who practiced with Louisville last season after they were dismissed at Georgia. Harvey-Clemons is a possible first-round pick in 2016. Cornelius Sturghill, a redshirt freshman, should move into the other corner spot. Chucky Williams will battle Zykiesis Cannon at the other safety.
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Previewing Louisville’s Specialists in 2015
Senior placekicker John Wallace needs 10 field goals to become the school’s all-time leader. Josh Appleby becomes the punter after three seasons as the backup. The return game didn’t give Louisville an edge last season. Petrino hopes that Staples (punts) and Williams (kickoffs) will fix that.
Louisville has lost considerable talent and undergone a coaching staff change over the last two seasons. Those are warning signs the program could take a step back in 2015, especially with a schedule that includes Auburn and Clemson in two of the first three games. The Cardinals need a quarterback to emerge, receivers to step forward, three new offensive linemen to step up and a rebuilt secondary to deliver to keep winning big. That’s a lot to ask.