The open practices for Louisville Football have concluded for 2016 and fans will have one final look at their team on April 16th when the Cards host their Spring Game. Thus far Bobby Petrino & staff have had 10 practices this Spring and have 5 more remaining before going into the off-season. What did we learn?
If there is one easily identifiable individual improvement in Spring Practice so far, it’s the evolution of Lamar Jackson. Evaluating Quarterbacks in non-contact practice sessions is always difficult to fully assess but it’s clear that Lamar has taken steps to renovate his game, particularly passing the ball. But Lamar isn’t just better on his throws (his deep ball has dramatically improved) his decision making on zone reads has also gotten better. Jackson’s energy in the practices we observed was off-charts finishing runs beyond the cone (35-yards down field) and hustling back to the huddle to run the next play.
Lamar Jackson isn’t a finished product, but 2016 will see the next stage of Lamar moving from a QB playing off instinct to a Signal Caller that understands the concepts of what Petrino is trying to achieve within his offense and how to attack defenses. Additionally Lamar’s understanding of the offense & his role within the offense will include the involvement of his other skill players, most namely the running backs. It will also make the wide receivers more dangerous knowing that Jackson will continue his progressions longer. An unnamed assistant coach at yesterday’s practice said after a sensational Lamar Jackson play, “I can’t wait to see that in a game.”
We’ve all seen the contributions of Kyle Bolin during his time at UofL. Bolin during Spring is an unchallenged #2 Quarterback. As is usually the case with sophomore to juniors Kyle’s improvement isn’t as noticeable as it was from his freshman to sophomore year. At this point Bolin is refining his craft. Louisville will likely need to call on Kyle once again for a stretch in a critical situation and Cardinal fans (and his coaches) know what Bolin is capable of.
Post-Spring Thought on Quarterbacks: It will be very interesting to see the readiness of Jawon Pass. Petrino & Co have largely moved Reggie Bonnafon out of the QB spot and Kyle Bolin has a great deal of game experience. It will be interesting to see if Louisville has to go away from Lamar Jackson during a game (for injury or performance) which QB comes off the bench. Does situation depend? Does Petrino want to keep the Redshirt on Pass and put the experience of Kyle Bolin on the field?
Here’s where things get interesting. Louisville, in my opinion, had to augment its rushing attack based on Lamar Jackson’s presence last year. Everything came out of the shotgun with Lamar on the field and when Louisville needed to ‘Run to Win’ in the 4th Quarter they actually had to change Quarterbacks to get under center and run the ball in a traditional way. This inconsistency disrupted the involvement and rhythm of a position that probably relies on rhythm the most….the Running Backs.
This Spring there is a clear emphasis to get the Running Backs more involved in the offense, out of the shotgun, in pistol, or under center. It’s difficult to say what the pecking order may be with this group but it’s easy to see that Brandon Radcliff, Jeremy Smith, and LJ Scott will all be heavily involved. Radcliff & Smith both appear to be a touch lighter while LJ may have added more strength to his upper body. Malin Jones also has had some nice moments and appears to be more ready to make an impact than a year ago. Trey Smith also opened Spring Practice at Linebacker and has since moved back to Running Back.
Reggie Bonnafon also is working at RB. Bonnafon is all over the place during a Louisville Football practice. He spends time with Running Backs, Wide Receivers, catching punts and occasionally throws a pass. Reggie is dizzying to follow, but it’s clear he needs to be on the field. Last year UofL used Reggie mostly for outside runs out of the backfield. Right now Reggie’s going to have a major role somewhere….and perhaps everywhere. It’ll be fun to watch.
In the sessions we’ve been able to watch there is no tackling to the ground so evaluating Running Backs in an environment like that is nearly impossible. LJ Scott, however, is clearly the best pass catcher out of the backfield. We’ve also seen wide receiver Traveon Samuel line up in the backfield in specialty packages that could confuse defenses in a variety of ways.
Louisville has a lot of experience at Running Back in 2016 and it looks like they aim to use them much more in 2016. If this group gets the opportunity to produce and cashes in that would be a BIG net positive.
Post-Spring Thoughts on Running Backs: Because UofL has so much experience at Running Back there is a clear void of youth within this group. The coaches went out and got some Athletes that could eventually end up in the Cardinal backfield. The good news is that it’s extremely unlikely that UofL will need any of those incoming backs to play in 2016……but there is no way Petrino can move into 2017, 2018 without having something in the pipeline so we’ll be anxious to see how Malik Staples, Malik Williams (potential WR also) and Dae Williams all look when they get to campus.
The Spring began with just two scholarship Cardinal Tight Ends available. Cole Hikutini & Charles Standberry. Hikutini’s progress may be the 2nd most noticeable on the field this Spring. That’s unusual for a Senior, but considering that this is Cole’s second year with the Cards it makes sense. Hikutini is bigger than he was a year ago and is an absolute mismatch in the passing game. Standberry’s talent is undeniable and after a season where the coaches toyed with the idea of Charles playing in the slot, Charles is fully back at Tight End and has added the weight back to play the position. Most folks fully expected Standberry to break out in 2015, so maybe that’ll happen for 2016. The talent is there. It’s time to do it.
Micky Crum has returned to practice after missing the first bit with an injury. The one session we saw with Crum present showed a little predictable rust after missing the onset of Spring Ball. That’s not a reason to think that Micky won’t make a jump in production for his sophomore season after a freshman season full of promise. Crum missed the Wake Forest game (a 20-19 game) due to a suspension (undisclosed) and the Cards could have used his explosion.
One REALLY bright spot for Louisville last year was Keith Towbridge. Keith blossomed at tight end and continued his great blocking and added 3 Touchdown Receptions. Towbridge did all of this despite having surgery during the summer to fix a broken bone in his foot (same injury as DeVante Parker in 2014). Keith unfortunately had to miss the 2016 Spring season for some corrective surgery to his surgically repaired foot (also similar to DeVante) but is expected to be good to go this summer well in advance of Fall Camp.
Post-Spring Thoughts on Tight Ends: The tight end group is very solid but like the Running Backs it is heavily weighted with experienced guys. The Cards signed North Jackson (AL) Tight End Austin Cummins (6’5, 230) and while Cummins will likely play tight end in 2016 (redshirt most likely) a source has told me that the coaching staff suspects that Austin may grow out of his position and into an offensive tackle (which would be an incredibly good thing for the OL). If Cummins does remain as a Tight End that would provide at least some future pipeline but if he does move over to OT, sophomore Micky Crum would be the youngest TE in the group. Such a situation would present a problem in 2017 & beyond. For 2016 however, Louisville is set at TE.
The unit with the most room for improvement is the offensive line. The front line of UofL Football was 124th (of 128th) in Sacks Allowed per game & 119th in Tackles for Loss Allowed per game in 2015. Additionally UofL was just 64th in rushing in 2015 despite having a running quarterback in Lamar Jackson gaining 960 yards.
This Spring the Cards continue to lean on true sophomore Geron Christian at weak tackle who started every game of 2015 at that position. Christian as a true freshman gave UofL fans a reason to be excited about the unit’s future early & often. This Spring, Geron continues to grow and develop towards becoming a premier tackle in the ACC. Tobijah Hughley has been tested for two seasons at Center…..he’s not going anywhere and will be a leader in the middle for UofL in 2016. For the 1st time, Hughley has a full handle on the starting job and is unchallenged by his teammates or coaches. This Spring is unlike last Spring or Fall camp where Hughley & several others auditioned for the starting Center spot. Tobijah was much improved in the latter half of 2015 and we’ll see if this consistent work pays off in August for UofL.
After the Weak Tackle & Center spot the rest is up for grabs. It’s a sure bet that Lukayus McNeil is going to start for Louisville on the offensive line in 2016 but the question is: Where? McNeil has spent this Spring at Strong Tackle and has done a nice job despite playing all of 2015 at Weak Guard. Kenny Thomas played Strong Tackle for 2015 (and started a few games) but has since moved to Weak Guard for this Spring. This movement between McNeil and Thomas may be an experiment to find McNeil & Thomas’ natural positions but also an exercise in providing Chris Klenakis & Bobby Petrino options due to available personnel. At this point the best guess is that both Lukayus & Kenny will be starters but impossible to project what the coaches may do this summer. The opinion of this writer is that Louisville would be best served with both of these two starting inside at Guard IF Petrino & Klenakis can find a suitable Strong Tackle.
The best candidate for Strong Tackle outside of Thomas or McNeil is Toriano Roundtree. Toriano has made strides since arriving right before 2015 Fall Camp. Roundtree has a nice upper body frame but lacks bulk in his hips and lower half. With his body still taking shape Roundtree may be a year away from winning a starting spot, but he’s your best candidate to convince Petrino & Klenakis to play both Kenny Thomas & Lukayus McNeil at Guard.
Odds are that McNeil or Thomas will start at Strong Tackle with the other being at Weak Guard. With that in mind the race for the Strong Guard spot would be up for grabs. The candidates for that position are Kiola Mahoni (injured), Khalil Hunter, and Chandler Jones. Mahoni likely would have been with the #1 unit this Spring but was injured just before practice began and is forced to miss the camp. As such Khalil Hunter filled the role and has been playing with the #1 group. Coach Klenakis has said that Hunter is his most athletic offensive lineman so it is just a matter of time before it all comes together for Khalil. Chandler Jones has looked impressive with the #2 group and it’s clear that at some point he’ll make a serious case to be a starter.
Overall Louisville is in a much better position in the Spring of 2016 than the unit was in 2015 when the Cards only had 8 players to mix in for practice. We’ll continue to keep an eye on Kevin Austin and Danny Burns to monitor their development and also there are several capable players in the walk-on group that could become candidates to contribute ala Tobijah Hughley at some point.
Post-Spring Thoughts on Offensive Line: As discussed above it’s going to be very interesting to see what the starting group ends up being this Fall. With so many moving parts and potential spots it’s unclear who will end up where. But at least we know two spots: Christian & Hughley. And that’s a lot more than we knew a year ago. Looking at the future UofL has a solid foundation of young players but the Cards might be desperate for a Center a year from now and only landed one offensive lineman (Robbie Bell) in the recruiting cycle. We do expect Austin Cummins to grow into an OT at some point, but as we saw with Breno Giacomini that process took 3 seasons to complete. Look for UofL to place a greater emphasis on Offensive Line recruiting this year in an attempt to not have huge gaps of experience in years to come.
The Wide Receivers are probably the best unit offensively for the Cards. The players that stand out the most this Spring are Jamari Staples, Traveon Samuel, Javonte Bagley, Emonee Spence and James Quick. Staples is the clear #1 of the group and is playing like a guy that wants to make an ALL-ACC Team. Spence, Bagley & Samuel appear to be sitting on a breakout season as we’ve witnessed all 3 make tremendous plays consistently in the sessions we were able to watch. James Quick is listed here reluctantly……Quick makes great plays but also disappears for stretches. Now that he’s a senior we’d like to demand a little more from James and hope that he demands a little more from himself. That’s only because we believe James Quick can be a great player, if the thought was that he was average…we’d allow it.
One player that is really intriguing is Reggie Bonnafon. As mentioned above Reggie is all over the place in practice but he’s consistently appeared as a wide receiver this Spring. Bonnafon gets work both inside & outside and honestly he’s probably not going to be someone we can say: “He’s a ____”. He’s just a football player and maybe a rare player that isn’t meant to specialize.
UofL has a wealth of talent at WR. Proven by the fact that this is the first time these names are listed:
Devante Peete, Ja’Quay Savage, Jaylen Smith
Jaylen Smith has had a hand issue this Spring but has continued to fully participate. Jaylen was 3rd in receiving for the Cards last year with 29 receptions and 376 yards. Smith has what appears to be all of the physical tools to be a great receiver and did a nice job as a freshman. So far this Spring though he’s not stood out like the group mentioned above. Perhaps that is due to his hand.
Ja’Quay Savage has been wearing a yellow ‘non-contact’ jersey during practice and has made several very nice plays. Devante Peete is someone with MAJOR potential and played last year right away as a true freshman. Peete’s biggest issue so far is making the ‘almost’ incredible play. Devante at some point is going to begin consistently making that type of play, but he’s not there yet. It’s just a matter of time.
The Cards Wide Receiver depth continues with Pat Thomas and Gio Pascascio. Pascascio has a ton of speed and walk-on Chris Miele also has proven capable as well.
Post-Spring Thoughts on Wide Receivers: Clearly Louisville has a ton of talent and numbers at WR. It also appears that the classes are evenly balanced so that the Cards have a conveyor belt of top flight ball catching candidates. The trouble is…..how do you keep everyone happy? It’s a good problem to have and it will work itself out. On top of that Louisville has some INCREDIBLE Wide Receivers incoming: Seth Dawkins, Dez Fitzpatrick, Chris Taylor-Yamanoha, Keion Wakefield and Malik Williams (potential RB) all coming in. The WR group is perhaps the best group of the 2016 recruiting class coming into the best position group already on the team at UofL. It seems as if the AFROS are back.
This is one position group that we were unable really evaluate during Spring Practice. Losing John Wallace is going to be a big deal for the Cards moving forward, but we’ll have to wait until the Spring Game on April 16th to see more.
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