As impressive as Lamar Jackson’s Heisman Trophy-winning campaign was, three straight losses to finish things definitely ended Louisville’s 2016 season on a sour note. Jackson is back but he’s one of just four returning starters on offense as other playmakers will need to emerge, and quickly. Head coach Bobby Petrino made a change at defensive coordinator and Peter Sirmon will have experience at all three levels to work with. Even with Jackson at the helm, the Cardinals will need to overcome their inexperience and offensive line issues if they want to come close to matching last season’s production, not to mention team success.
Previewing Louisville Football’s Offense for 2017
Alabama, Ohio State and Clemson don’t start with the edge that Bobby Petrino has — the nation’s most prolific quarterback, Lamar Jackson, the 2016 Heisman Trophy winner. As dazzling as Jackson was last season, running for 21 touchdowns, passing for 30 more and delivering more than 5,100 yards in total offense, Petrino needs him to be more efficient this season, cranking up his 56.2 completion percentage and eliminating moments like his three-interception game against Kentucky. The UK loss was one of three straight that punctuated the Cards’ season as they tumbled from playoff contention to No. 21 in the final AP poll.
Jackson needs help, especially from his line, which allowed 47 sacks, more than any ACC team. Petrino was so concerned that he hired former Florida assistant Mike Summers to fix the line.
Jeremy Smith excelled in the red zone last season, making him the favorite to become the featured back, but freshman Colin Wilson arrives as the most acclaimed running back Petrino has recruited since Michael Bush.
Jackson’s three top passing targets are gone, but the Cards have a solid trio of experienced juniors in Devante Peete, Jaylen Smith and Traveon Samuel. Seth Dawkins was the star of spring practice. Plus, Petrino is committed to scripting more plays for Reggie Bonnafon, who can play quarterback, halfback or receiver. Charles Standberry and Micky Crum are solid tight ends.
Previewing Louisville Football’s Defense for 2017
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The talented recruits left by Charlie Strong have all departed, and Petrino has also replaced feisty coordinator Todd Grantham with Peter Sirmon, a former NFL linebacker who ran the Mississippi State defense for one season. Sirmon will be assisted by secondary coach Lorenzo Ward, who worked with Petrino at Arkansas.
Drew Bailey will anchor a defensive line that has suffered significant losses to the NFL the last three seasons. Although James Hearns is listed as a linebacker, he typically parks his 6'3", 249-pound body at end and rushes the passer, making 10 of his 42 tackles behind the line. Hearns and linebacker Henry Famurewa missed the Cards’ bowl game after suffering gunshot wounds at an off-campus party.
Linebacker Stacy Thomas overcame injuries to become the Cardinals’ second-leading tackler, solid against the run and pass. Isaac Stewart and Jonathan Greenard did good things in limited playing time.
The secondary should be a strength with four returning starters, including cornerback Jaire Alexander, who led the Cards with five interceptions while generally covering the best receiver. But even the veterans must play better, because Louisville allowed 29 touchdown passes last season, the most in the ACC.
Previewing Louisville Football’s Specialists for 2017
Mason King will be pushed by Austin Johnson to hold his punting spot. With Jackson delivering all those TDs, Blanton Creque attempted only 19 field goals, making 16. Alexander is a sure-handed threat on punt returns, while Malik Williams and Dawkins should split kickoff returns.
After climbing as high as third nationally in mid-September and ranking fifth in the College Football Playoff poll after Week 12, the Cardinals wobbled down the stretch. Too many sacks. Too many fumbles. Too many missed tackles and blown assignments.
The defensive issues have been assigned to Sirmon, who has only one season of experience as a coordinator. Summers built solid offensive lines for Petrino at Arkansas and during his first run at Louisville. The head coach has drilled his team over the 22 fumbles lost. Odds are the Cards are looking at another third-place Atlantic Division finish behind Florida State and Clemson.
NATIONAL RANKING: 18
ACC ATLANTIC PREDICTION: 3
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