As we head into Bobby Petrino’s 3rd year in his second stint at UofL, what can be expected of the 2016 Louisville Football team? Who should we keep an eye out for? What positions are important to the success of this team? We will tackle these as well as some questions sent in by readers. Enjoy!
Positions of weakness:
- Offensive Line: You have to consider the offensive line a position of weakness until proven otherwise. Most can agree last year was quite the struggle at times, particularly early on in the year. The unit has a very high upside, but until that shows up on the field it is a weakness that has to be addressed.
- Secondary: Louisville allowed opposing teams 2,763 total receiving yards in 2015. That is the highest since 2011 when the Cards allowed 2,956 yards. Last year, Louisville replaced Charles Gaines, Terrell Floyd, James Sample, and Gerod Holliman, not quite the easiest task in the world. Not only did last year’s secondary have quite the shoes to fill, the level of physicality dropped off from recent years. Us Cardinal fans have had the privilege of watching 2 recent safeties, James Sample and Calvin Pryor, that were very physical both in run game support as well as making opposing receivers pay for coming over the middle of the field. Last year it was easy to see that the safeties generally lacked that same physicality. Is that something they are able develop heading into the 2016 season? That will be something to watch.
- Running Backs: The running backs as a weakness is a bit of a stretch, but there is a production gap to fill between how UofL RBs are expected to perform and how the Cardinal Running Backs produced in 2015. There is no denying the fact that the offensive line did not generate very many or very big holes at times last year, but the running backs as a group didn’t have a very spectacular year even with this factored in. The talent at the running back position is undeniable. The experience at the running back position is undeniable. Can this unit come together to be the stellar unit it has the potential to be in 2016? That is what Cardinal fans will be watching for. Hopefully the unit develops a good consistency to it while having the ability to be counted on in a close, grind it out game. The running game is vital to the team’s success.
Positions of strength:
- Wide Receiver: Possibly the single deepest, most talented position on the 2016 Louisville football team, the wide receivers have the tools and game experience to be an elite unit. Not only are there talented veteran players such as James Quick, Jamari Staples, Javonte Bagley, and JaQuay Savage, but there are tons of talented underclassmen who got valuable game experience last year including DeVante Peete, Jaylen Smith, and Traveon Samuel. If that wasn’t enough Louisville also brought in an impressive class of wide receivers this year including Seth Dawkins, Chris Taylor-Yamanoha, Keion Wakefield, and Dez Fitzpatrick. Needless to say the amount of competition at this position is very high which should yield nothing but great things on the field.
- Tight Ends: Bobby Petrino loves utilizing tight ends in his offense. The combination of Cole Hikutini, Keith Towbridge, Charles Standberry, and Micky Crum provides pass catching ability, blocking ability, athleticism, size, and… ultimately? Versatility. This unit is loaded with talent and I expect them to get a lot of work in 2016.
- Defensive front 7: When you lose 2 players such as Sheldon Rankins and James Burgess one would expect a defense to take a significant step back. But maybe it is better to look at it as Louisville was able to hold on to DeAngelo Brown, Keith Kelsey, and Devonte Fields while returning tons of talent in players such as James Hearns, Drew Bailey, Johnny Richardson, Kyle Shortridge, Stacy Thomas etc. Add in guys who have redshirted and there is an abundance of talent surrounding this position. This unit should anchor the defense and be a terror for opposing teams.
Players to watch for:
- Jaire Alexander: Loaded with potential not only at defensive back but also as a punt returner, Alexander was able to display his electric playmaking ability returning punts in 2015 and is expected to only improve as we head into 2016.
- G.G. Robinson: Robinson was a highly sought after recruit coming into Louisville with offers from schools such as Florida, Auburn, Mississippi St., Ole Miss, etc. He is an athletic, versatile lineman that after a year to learn the defense and work in the weight room should be ready to make an impact on the field.
- Chandler Jones: While he was not in the spotlight like other freshman offensive linemen such as Kenny Thomas and Geron Christian, Chandler Jones redshirted his first year on campus and there is nothing but positive buzz around him. Look for Jones to make a push for playing time in 2016.
- Traveon Samuel: While Samuel played and did well at times his freshman year, he probably wasn’t involved enough. Samuel should get more touches in 2016. The incredibly quick wide receiver has the tools to be a homerun threat for Louisville, look for Petrino to continue to find more ways of using him.
- Dee Smith: A 4* Safety, Smith was able to step into the role and earn more playing time towards the end of the year. Dee Smith is an incredible talent that Coach Grantham will find ways to get him on the field. We expect his role will be largely expanded this year.
Other Players: Emonee Spence, DeVante Peete, Toriano Roundtree, Isaac Stewart, Ronald Walker, James Hearns, and Drew Bailey.
Your suggested questions:
Does Louisville’s chance to win the ACC rest more or less completely on big improvement from the OL?
I think that a sizable improvement from the offensive line will definitely help Louisville be a contender for the ACC in 2016 but I don’t think it is a case where if the line doesn’t have a DRASTIC improvement then they should be ruled out. Let’s face it, the offensive line struggled mightily at times last year but there are a few things I should point out. 1. UofL could not decide on a quarterback and when it did, it was a true freshman 2. Louisville’s wide receivers were young and inexperienced last year (Bagley, Samuels, Smith, Peete, Crum, Hikutini, etc.) and 3. Louisville’s offensive line was never “semi-finalized” until basically the end of the year. When you account for these factors which one would expect to all improve as well, it does take a little pressure off of the offensive line. Sure, a great offense is characterized by a great offensive line 99.9% of the time, but a very good offense doesn’t necessarily have to have the world’s best offensive line. Let me put it this way, UofL’s offense finished #49 nationally with an offensive line that couldn’t get out of its own way at times last year. Imagine an improvement at QB, WR, and just a little continuity for the offensive line and that number goes up a quite a bit for next year. On top of this, the biggest factor that will help the offensive line play is reps and continuity as I will explain in the next question.
What sort of improvement on the offensive line is possible? Realistic?
To put it simply, a large improvement in the offensive line is not only possible but likely. I was able to talk to someone familiar with the play of the offensive line and one of the biggest things brought up was the lack of continuity in the line heading into fall camp and into the season. This is a quote from a practice report Mark Blankenbaker wrote up on August 8, 2015 that will summarize what I am talking about.
“Louisville’s Offensive Line shuffled the deck quite a bit on Saturday afternoon. There were a ton of combinations used today and it’s clear that the coaching staff is searching for the best group. Aaron Epps was pretty solidly the #1 WT. After that, the shuffle was constant but it appears that Kiola Mahoni took more reps than any player overall. Mahoni took reps at both guard spots and at Center and worked both with the #1s and #2s. Pedro Sibiea also appears to be given a chance to win the #1 Center spot. The snaps were a little inconsistent (but not as bad as they were reportedly yesterday) but Pedro certainly appeared to play the best in the middle today. Additionally on the Offensive Line freshman Kenny Thomas stood out. Playing both Guard and Tackle, Kenny took some reps with the 1st team and while it appears that he’ll be a better guard prospect Louisville may need him at tackle. Kelby Johnson looked OK at the ST spot and Khalil Hunter also appeared solid at the other guard spot.”
Without factoring in individual improvement on the offensive line, which is hard to predict, the one thing we know is that the ability to get reps at a certain position with guys on either side of you that doesn’t constantly change is a very good thing. This doesn’t mean that there can’t be competition but I think it is pretty safe to say that by now the staff knows where the younger guys (Thomas, Christian, Jones, McNeil, Mahoni, etc.) all fit in, what they do best, and where they are most comfortable. This continuity gives the unit a very high ceiling going forward.
How is Lamar Jackson improving with McGee leaving for Illinois?
This is something that will be hard to predict until we can actually see it with our own eyes. Coach McGee was an excellent coach and I think the success of Lamar Jackson is at least in large part from Coach Garrick McGee. With that being said I have a hard time not having complete faith that Jackson will continue to improve at a rapid pace. Bobby Petrino has worked with quite a few outstanding quarterbacks in his coaching career and I don’t think he would be putting Nick Petrino and Lonnie Galloway in the positions they are in if he didn’t believe they will further the development of Jackson.
How do the coaching changes impact this young team?
The way I like to look at it is that you have Bobby Petrino on offense and Todd Grantham on defense, after that everyone else is just icing on the cake. Sure, position coaches provide valuable tools, experience, and insight to the table but when you have 2 great coaches manning either side of the ball anyone underneath them will be held to an incredibly high standard. If Bobby Petrino doesn’t like the way an offensive player is developing he is going to step in, ask questions, and ultimately get the job done one way or another. Bottom line, I don’t believe the coaching change will have a negative impact on this team whatsoever.
I take it we will have a freshman place kicker this year? If so, can he overcome the pressure in big games?
This is a very hard question to answer, so I thought, what better way to answer then to ask one of these freshman kickers themselves! Here is his answer:
Austin Laszewski: “I would say I take pride in pressure scenarios. It separates the boys from the men and If I get an opportunity to hit a big time kick I will trust my leg and just look at it like any other kick.”
Here is our best guess at the pre-spring depth chart:
Twitter Poll: Fan Expectations
9-3 or worse: 14%
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