For a good portion of 2016, Louisville seemed well on its way to, if not making the College Football Playoff, then a major bowl. But things got away from head coach Bobby Petrino and the Cardinals, as losses to Houston and Kentucky to end the regular season led to a 29-9 defeat at the hands of LSU in the Citrus Bowl. In that game, even Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Lamar Jackson struggled, and a once-promising season ended with a disappointing 9-4 finish.
Since then, Petrino has made some changes to his coaching staff, but among the players, there are enough core performers from last season to expect greater success. Jackson is the key piece, but it won't be just him. As spring practice begins on March 21, groundwork can be laid for the Cards to finish what they started last season.
5 Storylines to Watch During Louisville's Spring Practice
1. Jackson of all trades
Coming into the 2017 season, all eyes will once again be on Jackson, but this time looking for another step of improvement from the junior quarterback. While he did win the Heisman with an incredible 51 total touchdowns (30 passing, 21 rushing), improvements can be made.
At times, Jackson was inaccurate with his passing and made poor decisions with the ball. He completed just 56.2 percent of his passes for the season, and was frazzled in the Citrus Bowl loss to LSU. Becoming a more consistent performer under pressure will go a long way in his development.
2. All lined up
One major hole in Louisville's otherwise explosive offense last season was up front. The Cardinals were 124th in the nation in sacks allowed per game, and Jackson too often had to bail on plays early, resulting in mistakes and turnovers.
Petrino made a switch this offseason, moving Chris Klenakis to coach tight ends and bringing in former assistant Mike Summers to coach the offensive line and serve as co-offensive coordinator. If Summers can bring some consistency to the unit, the offense could be even more deadly than last year.
3. Weapons reload
With the graduation of wide receivers James Quick and Jamari Staples and tight end Cole Hikutini, Jackson's top three targets by yardage from last season are all gone.
However, the situation is not exactly dire. Players like Jaylen Smith, Traveon Samuel and Reggie Bonnafon all give Jackson capable options to throw to. Seeing which ones emerge as his favorites over the course of the spring will be key as the quarterback finds a rhythm heading into the season.
The defense suffered some key personnel losses, but with the loss of coordinator Todd Grantham to Mississippi State, the main defection happened with the person calling the plays. Enter Peter Sirmon, who comes over from the same place that Grantham went, after leading the Bulldogs’ 110th-ranked defense last season.
Sirmon promises to bring multiple fronts to the defense with both 3-4 and 4-3 looks. Even with the key player defections to the NFL, there is enough returning to expect a unit that ranks much higher than what Sirmon produced at Mississippi State.
5. The new kids
You might not see an immediate starter come out of the group, but it is nonetheless always worth watching when the early enrollees come to practice. This year, safeties C.J. Avery and Lyndarious Strange, offensive guard Cole Bentley and defensive end Kam Jones will be the ones to keep an eye on.
Although he has upperclassmen who will no doubt be ahead of him on the depth chart, it will be interesting to see how Avery comes along. A four-star recruit out of Grenada, Miss., Avery was one of the gems of the 2017 class and should push for early playing time if he has a smooth transition in the spring.
Pre-Spring Outlook for Louisville in the ACC
At the moment, the Atlantic Division appears to look very much like it did a year ago. Florida State and Clemson are again probably the favorites with Louisville squarely in the mix. After blowing the Seminoles out last year, the Cardinals go to Tallahassee this fall. Louisville also will look to avenge a close loss to Clemson from within the friendly confines of Papa John's Stadium. Those two games will likely decide the Cardinals’ fate within the division and beyond, as wins in both of those contests could catapult them into the College Football Playoff.
— Written by Adam Kurkjian, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and is a reporter for the Boston Herald. He has covered the World Series, Super Bowl, Stanley Cup playoffs, Boston Marathon and Little League World Series, among other events from the high school, college and pro ranks. Follow him on Twitter @AdamKurkjian.