Louisville did not get off to a very good start in 2015. After suffering a loss at Auburn, the Cardinals lost their first home game to Houston before getting defeated 20-17 by Clemson.
However, Louisville did comeback to win eight of the 10 remaining games including a 27-21 victory over Texas A&M in the Music City Bowl.
Although the Cardinals finished strong, three of their five losses were to ACC opponents, and Louisville will have to face two of those teams, Florida State and Clemson, within the first five matchups of 2016.
The Cardinals did not lose much talent heading into next season, which should help with the tough early games on the schedule. However, the loss of a few key players may have an impact on Louisville’s success in the trenches.
Head coach Bobby Petrino believes the spring was successful in helping rebuild the offensive and defensive lines.
“I was pleased with our spring ball. I thought offensively we improved. We improved on our passing game, and I think we have more ability to run the ball with our offensive front and our running backs’ experience,” he said. “Defensively we should be another strong team. We’ve got a good defensive front, and our secondary intact coming back, and it was very competitive. I think that’s the best thing about spring ball. It was very competitive.”
An area that does not pose any concern is the quarterback position. Last season, Louisville juggled between three different play callers before a true freshman dual-threat quarterback arose as the best option. Lamar Jackson appeared in 12 games last season, throwing for 1,840 yards and 12 touchdowns, while rushing for 960 yards and 11 touchdowns. He ended his freshman season with setting the Music City Bowl’s record by rushing for 226 yards. He racked up 453 total yards and four touchdowns in that game alone.
“Lamar finished the season very, very strong. He matured a lot. I thought he had a really good spring football, and the fact that he understands the offense better, he’s making better decisions, and he’s throwing the football with accuracy,” Petrino said.
Jackson will also have quite a few familiar faces to pass to as the Cardinals return all of last season’s leading receivers, including James Quick and Jamari staples that combined for 1,262 receiving yards in 2015.
“The receiving corps, we have a lot of guys there that are competing every day for playing time and for catches, so that’s a really good competition for us,” Petrino said.
Protecting the quarterback may be more of a concern for Louisville. The offensive line struggled last season and allowed 44 sacks in 13 games. That was the most allowed by any ACC team. The line also did not provide a strong enough front for a productive rushing game. Louisville only averaged 3.5 rushing yards per carry in conference play.
Although the Cardinals will return most of their starters in the backfield, the line will need to improve upon last season’s performance for the running game to increase productivity.
“Offensive line-wise we have had a good spring with Geron Christian and Lukayus McNeil did a nice job for us at tackle spots. Kenny Thomas did a nice job inside at the guard position,” Petrino said.
The defensive front may take a step back from where it was last season with the loss of defensive ends Sheldon Rankins and Pio Vatuvei. Defensive tackle DeAngeo Brown will return to start after totaling 6.5 tackles for loss last season.
Petrino said he is still rotating guys like tackles Kyle Shortridge and ends Drew Bailey and junior college recruit Chris Williams.
“Defensively I think we’re still working on our defensive front and guys that have been rotating in there that are getting a lot of reps and trying to figure out who the starters are at the defensive front position,” Petrino said.
Louisville could use some depth at the linebacker position with Trevon Young’s status in question after suffering a hip injury in the bowl game. However, the Cardinals will return senior outside linebacker Devonte Fields and middle linebacker Keith Kelsey.
In the secondary, they return all four starters from a unit that ended 2015 ranked 45th in pass efficiency defense. Safety Josh Harvey-Clemons and cornerback Shaq Wiggins will anchor the group.
“Shaq should be a good football player for us. He certainly has the experience,” Petrino said. “But everyone needs to understand they get to go out each day and prove they’re better than the guy in front of them or the guy behind them.”