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Louisville Football: 2018 Cardinals Preview and Prediction

Jaylen Smith, Louisville Football

Jaylen Smith, Louisville Football

While Louisville must cope without Heisman Trophy winner Lamar Jackson leading the offense, the Cardinals' questions go beyond the quarterback position. Bobby Petrino has even more questions on defense, which will be under the direction of a new coordinator. While Jackson will certainly be a tough act to follow, the new quarterback has a veteran offensive line to protect him and a talented group of receivers to throw to. The same can't be said for the defense, which returns just two starters. Petrino has his work cut out for him as the Cardinals will try and maintain their place in the ACC Atlantic Division pecking order.

Previewing Louisville Football's Offense for 2018

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Some NFL teams weren't certain Lamar Jackson's best position is quarterback, but don't tell that to Bobby Petrino. He must replace his team's best runner and passer from the last two seasons, a guy the Cardinals could count on for more than 400 yards and three touchdowns per game.

Petrino will do that by returning to his pass-first roots with a quarterback who is more thrower than runner - Jawon Pass, who completed nearly 70 percent of his throws in a small sample size (33 attempts) last season. At 6'4" and 231 pounds with a powerful arm, Pass is more Brian Brohm than Jackson.

He'll benefit from a terrific collection of receivers. Jaylen Smith, Dez Fitzpatrick and Seth Dawkins combined for more than 2,300 yards and scored 20 TDs last season working with a quarterback eager to tuck and run. Tight end Micky Crum does his best work as a blocker.

Without Jackson, the tailbacks can expect more opportunities. Dae Williams did not play the first seven games but averaged more than 6.0 yards per carry and had 88 yards against Virginia.

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The offensive line improved under coach Mike Summers, and mammoth sophomore tackle Mekhi Becton, who is 6'7", 359 pounds, is considered an emerging star.

Previewing Louisville Football's Defense for 2018

Louisville's defense wobbled as the program transitioned from Todd Grantham to Peter Sirmon as the coordinator - and Sirmon heard the grumbling. He left to coach linebackers at California. Enter Brian VanGorder, a debatable choice considering he was fired four games into the 2016 season at Notre Dame. While you can debate Louisville's issues at coordinator, you can't dispute that the program lacks the elite defensive talent Charlie Strong collected during his four-season run. The talent drain has been so persistent that Louisville could start a defensive unit that does not feature a senior.

Dorian Etheridge was a revelation at linebacker, leading the team with 83 tackles as a true freshman. Etheridge is the only returnee who started all 13 games.

During the spring, the hunt for players who can run and tackle turned to another freshman -Robert Hicks, a four-star prospect from Miami. After enrolling for the spring semester, Hicks established himself as a playmaker in April. C.J. Avery and P.J. Blue also impressed at linebacker during the spring.

Louisville needs run stoppers as well as playmakers in the secondary. G.G. Robinson has the most experience at tackle, while Jon Greenard contributed 15.5 tackles for a loss at defensive end/outside linebacker. The Cards lost three starters in the secondary, but sophomore Russ Yeast has the ability to make a major jump.

Previewing Louisville Football's Specialists for 2018

The kicking game should be one of the strongest areas on the team. Blanton Creque drilled 17-of-20 field goal attempts, including 14 in a row. His career success percentage of .846 is the best in program history. Punter Mason King averaged 43.9 yards per kick. Yeast averaged 3.3 yards per punt return but is expected to improve with experience.

Final Analysis

The Cardinals have more questions in 2018 than they've had during any season of Petrino's second tour of duty at the school. Louisville must solve significant issues on defense and replace a former Heisman-winning quarterback. And they must do so against a schedule that begins with Alabama in Orlando and includes a road trip to Clemson. Another season in the middle of the ACC Atlantic pack looms.

College Football Top 25: Louisville