Louisville is coming off of a very successful year, one in which they were hot until a major fall off at the end of the season that resulted in the Cardinals losing their last two games of the regular season as well as getting blown out in the Citrus Bowl at the hands of LSU.
With Heisman Trophy winning quarterback Lamar Jackson back for another year, Bobby Petrino is looking to have a historic year for Louisville in 2017.
“I was really happy with the way our kids came out and worked hard and practiced and improved in spring ball,” Louisville head coach Bobby Petrino said. “It was fun to see our new defensive staff and what they were doing out there.
“We were able to get some guys off the injury list that came out and played and showed that they’ll be back, and that’ll help us a lot. Offensively, I thought Lamar had a good spring, got to know some of the new receivers, and also it was fun to see our offensive line work together under Coach Summers. Overall it was a good spring. We are looking forward to the development that we have in the summer, and getting everything done then.”
The Cardinals may have only lost two players to the draft, but they have still lost a lot of talent overall. In total they lost 11 starters. Of these players they lose their three main passing targets in wide receivers James Quick and Jamari staples as well as tight end Cole Hikutini.
The trio combined for a total of 2,052 receiving yards and 16 touchdowns. Hikutini was one of the best receiving tight ends in the ACC last season. They are also losing three starting offensive lineman including center Tobijah Hugely, who had 37 total career starts.
On the defensive end they lost the only defensive player drafted in Josh Harvey-Clemons. He had 61 tackles for the Cardinals last season. They are also losing linebacker and leading tackler Keith Kelsey as well as defensive end Devonte Fields who had 6 sacks last season.
The Cardinals also went to the spring learning a new defense after defensive coordinator Todd Grantham left for the same job at Mississippi State.
“We were able to get a lot of the new schemes in and how we would utilize our personnel within it,” Petrino said. “It’s still a work in progress because we’re getting to know the players and how they fit with the defense and what pieces fit in the right spots. But I thought they did a good job.
“One of the things you have to do regardless of what scheme that you use, you have to play good principles of defense. Our ability to shed blocks, run fell speed to the ball and tackle and force turnovers was also something we really preached and worked hard in the spring.”
Like many teams, Louisville has lost some talent, but unlike every other team, it brings back Jackson. Last year, Jackson was arguably the best player in the country and very well deserving of winning the Heisman Trophy. He threw the ball for 3,543 yards and 30 touchdowns. Although his completion percentage wasn’t the best he more than got it done through the air.
While he was good throwing the ball at times, Jackson was known for the work he did with his feet. He ran for 1,571 yards at the quarterback position which included 21 rushing touchdowns.
In spring practice, one thing clearly shown is that Jackson might better than last year. In basically two quarters of football in the spring game he completed 19 passes for 346 yards and three touchdowns.
“Yeah, we worked hard on him playing under the center and doing things we like to do from under the center,” Petrino said. “We worked hard on throwing the ball down the field and him really improving on his progression reads and sets in the pocket. I thought he did a good job of really working hard on concentrating and focusing on seeing the defenses and the safeties and linebacker movements, so I was happy with what we did with him in the spring, and we thought that we made the spring game, both teams equal. Lamar became a big difference in the spring game.”
Sophomore wide receiver Jaylen Smith will be back after he averaged 22.2 yards a catch. Place kicker Brandon Creque is back as well. He was a very consistent kicker for the Cardinals last season.
Defensively, the Cardinals return players such as linebacker Stacy Thomas and defensive end Drew Bailey. The defense is returns seven starters overall.
While Jackson was performing in the spring, there were still some questions on the offensive line. With only two returning linemen in Geron Christian and Lukayus Mcneil, the whole interior of their line is in question. They have given opportunities for Kenny Thomas and Robbie Bell to step into the guard positions while there seems to be a two-way battle between Nate Scheler and Cole Bentley for the center position.
While Jeremy Smith, Trey Smith and Dae Williams have been expected to be the main competitors for the starting running back position, former quarterback and wide receiver Reggie Bonnafon was impressive in the spring game taking carries. The wide receivers were solid, too, but Dez Fitzpatrick was the real star of the group in the spring game. He had 176 yards and two touchdowns in the spring game.
“You know, one of the things we’ll have back in the fall that we didn’t have in spring was Jaylon Smith,” Petrino said. “Jaylon was a guy that made a lot of big plays for us last year. He’s just under 6’4″, 218 pounds, and has great speed and hands.
“Seth Dawkins has become our other go-to receiver on the other side of the field. Seth also is very big and fast and physical, and I think we’re just now seeing how good and how much skill he really does have. Both tight ends I thought did a good job this spring. Charles Standberry probably stood out as far as catching the ball and maybe being able to fill in the product that we lost from Cole Hikutini graduating, and then in the backfield, you know, we’ve got good combination with a Reggie Bonnafon back there and Jeremy Smith and just to be able to rotate them in and keep them fresh and fast and ready to go.”
Defensively, the end spots are solidified as expected, with competition between De’asian Richardson G.G. Robinson and Derek Dorsey for the nose tackle position. With the linebacking core being nearly solidified and three secondary positions as well, the last position up for grabs is a safety position in which Dee Smith and P.J. Blue fighting for the spot.
–Above Photo Credit: Joshua S. Kelly-USA TODAY Sports