Louisville finished the 2015 season by winning six out of its last seven games, and there is plenty of optimism for coach Bobby Petrino’s team when spring ball begins on March 22. The Cardinals return 18 starters, including dynamic sophomore quarterback Lamar Jackson and standout linebackers Devonte Fields and Keith Kelsey. Jackson is still developing as a passer, but his athletic ability will create plenty of problems for defensive coordinators in the ACC next fall. Helping Jackson’s development is a strong supporting cast of weapons, along with an offensive line expected to improve with four returning starters. The ACC Atlantic features two of the nation’s top teams in Clemson and Florida State. Contending for the division title won’t be easy, but Louisville could challenge for double-digit wins in 2016.
5 Storylines to Watch in Louisville’s Spring Practice
1. Lamar Jackson’s Progress
After shuffling through three different quarterbacks in the starting lineup last season, Louisville enters spring practice with a clear answer under center. Lamar Jackson closed his freshman campaign with solid back-to-back performances, which included an impressive all-around showcase (453 total yards, 4 TDs) in the bowl win over Texas A&M. In 12 appearances last season, Jackson threw for 1,840 yards and 12 scores and rushed for 960 yards and 11 touchdowns. With a full offseason to develop as the starter, Jackson should take another step forward in his development. This spring is all about Petrino building the offense around Jackson and continuing to work with the talented sophomore on his passing ability (54.7 percent in 2015).
2. Development of the Offensive Line
This unit is the biggest concern for Louisville entering spring ball. The offensive line surrendered 44 sacks in 13 games last season (most in the ACC), and rushers averaged only 3.5 yards per carry (ACC-only contests). Additionally, the Cardinals were held under 100 rushing yards in half of their ACC games last year. There are reasons to be optimistic here, especially with the return of Geron Christian at left tackle. He started all 13 games as a true freshman last season and is expected to anchor the line in 2016. Lukayus McNeil (left guard) and center Tobijah Hughley are back as returning starters, while guard Kiola Mahoni and tackle Kenny Thomas also gained valuable starting experience last season and will push for snaps. There’s promise here, but Louisville needs this unit to take a step forward.
3. Filling the Voids in the Trenches
With eight starters back, Louisville’s defense will be among the best in the ACC. There are few concerns for coordinator Todd Grantham, but the Cardinals lose two key members from the defensive line. Sheldon Rankins – one of the ACC’s most underrated players – and Pio Vatuvei expired their eligibility. Tackle DeAngelo Brown is the lone returning starter in the trenches, and the Georgia native ranked seventh on the team with 6.5 tackles for a loss last season. Grantham will be looking for bigger contributions from Kyle Shortridge and Drew Bailey, while Johnny Richardson should be a factor after an injury limited him to just two games in 2015. Junior college recruit Chris Williams and redshirt freshman G.G. Robinson are two names to watch this spring.
4. Development of the Secondary
Louisville’s secondary finished 2015 ranked 45th nationally in pass efficiency defense. That’s not bad by any means, but there is certainly room to improve. The Cardinals surrendered 22 passing plays of 30 yards or more (10th in the ACC) and gave up 17 passing scores in league games. The good news? All four starters are back, including safety Josh Harvey-Clemons and cornerbacks Trumaine Washington and Shaq Wiggins. With a healthy pass rush in front, this unit won’t have to cover for too long. However, this unit is capable of taking their play up a notch, and the spring is the first chance for the secondary to work out some of the kinks for 2016.
5. Trevon Young’s Health and the Linebacking Corps
Trevon Young was a key cog in Louisville’s linebacker unit last year, but his status for 2016 is uncertain after a serious hip injury in the bowl game against Texas A&M. In 12 games last season, Young ranked second on the team with 8.5 sacks and also recorded 10 tackles for a loss. The Iowa native is on track in his recovery, but he also faces long odds to play in 2016. With Young’s status for next fall in doubt, this spring is the first opportunity to find replacements and build depth at linebacker. Devonte Fields and Keith Kelsey are two of the top linebackers in the ACC and will be joined by other experienced options in Stacy Thomas, James Hearns and Isaac Stewart. Hearns is an intriguing edge rusher that should help to fill the void if Young doesn't return in 2016.
Pre-Spring Louisville Outlook in the ACC
Is Louisville ready to take the next step in the Atlantic Division? That’s the big question for 2016 as spring ball opens in coach Bobby Petrino’s third season back with the Cardinals. Of course, that’s easier said than done with Florida State and Clemson in the same division. While Louisville doesn’t need to finish ahead of the Seminoles or Tigers to have a good season, this team is certainly capable of pulling an upset against one of the league’s top teams. The schedule isn’t overwhelming. Outside of matchups against Florida State, Clemson and Houston, Louisville should be favored in its remaining games. With 18 starters back and a rising star at quarterback, nine wins in the regular season should be the expectation.