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Louisville Football: 2021 Cardinals Season Preview and Prediction

C.J. Avery, Louisville Cardinals Football

C.J. Avery, Louisville Cardinals Football

Louisville head coach Scott Satterfield has slipped into a "prove it" situation in his third season with the Cardinals.

Louisville went 8–5 in 2019, then slid to 4–7. Four coaches departed the staff. Two top offensive players left for the NFL without finishing the 2020 season. Satterfield was motivated to write a letter of apology to Louisville season-ticket holders after his bungled effort to be involved with the South Carolina job.

The gap between Louisville and Clemson has grown in the Atlantic Division, but the Cards must also climb back over NC State and Boston College while trying to replace their three most dynamic offensive playmakers. The outlook is cloudier than a year ago.

Related: Athlon Sports' College Football Top 25 for 2021

Previewing Louisville's Offense for 2021 

After offensive coordinator Dwayne Ledford left for the Atlanta Falcons, Satterfield decided that he would direct the Louisville offense. His first job will be fixing quarterback Malik Cunningham. A year after performing like the third-best quarterback in the ACC, Cunningham had a season to flush. Not only did he throw a dozen interceptions, but Cunningham also lost three fumbles. At his best, Cunningham is a solid mid-range passer as well as a formidable runner. At the level he played last season, Cunningham is at risk of being replaced by Evan Conley. The quarterback needs to set the tone on turnovers. The Cards committed 24, leaving them No. 119 nationally in turnover margin at minus-12.

Like Cunningham, halfback Hassan Hall also backslid last season, as his yardage slipped from 501 to 223. Satterfield praised Hall's spring energy, and he is positioned to start the season ahead of Jalen Mitchell and Maurice Burkley.

Tutu Atwell and Dez Fitzpatrick supplied 60 percent of the Cards' receiving yards and half of their 20 touchdowns. It will require a collaboartive effort from a crop of unprovent options to replace them. Braden Smith is not a game-breaker but has sure hands and runs solid routes. Justin Marshall had a solid spring. But the wild card is Shai Werts, a graduate transfer from Georgia Southern who agreed to transition from quarterback to receiver.

Tight end Marshon Ford arrived as a walk-on and has developed into one of the best in the ACC. He excelled in the red zone, contributing six touchdown receptions. His only question is a return from shoulder surgery.

The offensive line is another mystery because that is the group coached by Ledford, who was a favorite of the players. There is plenty of experience, but look for Virginia Tech graduate transfer Bryan Hudson and junior tackle Trevor Reid to force their way into the group, which needs to display more athleticism.

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Previewing Louisville's Defense for 2021 

For the first time in four seasons, Louisville ranked in the top half of the ACC in total defense. The Cards were the only ACC defensive unit to limit opponents to fewer than 200 yards passing per game, leaving co-coordinator Bryan Brown with the task of improving the run defense.

Defensive ends YaYa Diaby and Tabarius Peterson gave the Cards' pass rush the edge it had been missing, showing an ability to seal the edge and collapse the pocket. Malik Clark figures to get the first shot at nose tackle, where the departed Jared Goldwire excelled.

Linebacker remains the strength of the unit. After leading the Cards in tackles in consecutive seasons, C.J. Avery returns for a fifth season on the weak side. Middle linebacker Monty Montgomery flashed potential with a 13-tackle game against Notre Dame. Outside linebacker Yasir Abdullah finished strong with 24 tackles in the last five games. The talented Marvin Dallas, who missed most of last season with injuries, has the edge to fill the final spot.

Brown has work to do in the secondary, where three starters have departed. Kei'Trel Clark transferred in from Liberty and starred as a man-to-man coverage guy. The other cornerback spot is likely to go to Chandler Jones.

Kenderick Duncan, a first-team All-Sun Belt performer at Georgia Southern, brings size and experience to free safety. Freshman Benjamin Perry could be the frontrunner to play strong safety after the transfer of Lovie Jenkins.

Previewing Louisville's Specialists for 2021 

After struggling on special teams last season, Louisville joined the trend of recruiting a punter from Australia, signing Mark Vassett, a 24-year-old former construction worker who de-committed from Michigan State. Kicker James Turner showed terrific accuracy, nailing all 40 extra points as well as 13-of-15 field goals. Hassan Hall and Braden Smith are likely to split the job of returning kickoffs. Punt returns will not be settled until fall camp.

Final Analysis

Satterfield has work to do fixing the offense, upgrading the defense and repairing his relationship with fans. Cunningham must improve his accuracy and decision-making without the safety net of his two favorite receivers. Defensively, Louisville should continue to improve, but it's not a group with elite ACC talent. The Cards may need breaks and good health to finish on the right side of .500.

National Ranking: 45

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