WE. ARE. BACK. In more ways than one! It feels like this football season has been more of a nebulous concept than a real thing for the last several months, and now that we are staring a real, actual kick-off in the face, it’s almost surreal. Western Kentucky is as familiar a non-conference opponent that UofL faces outside of UK (a different subject for a different time.) Last year’s matchup in Nashville proved to be notable for several reasons, with Tutu Atwell emerging as a bona fide star, and Micale Cunningham starting (and thriving, pre-injury) against the Tops.
This year’s edition finds the Louisville football program on much more solid footing, with Coach Scott Satterfield coming off an impressive eight win campaign in his debut season. While they replace their quarterback and a few other playmakers, Western is on a similar upward trajectory, with a rising star head coach and most of their defense returning. Let’s get into the nuts and bolts.
THE FIVE KEYS
- The defensive front vs. WKU’s O-Line & Gaej Walker – The strength of Western’s offense lies in their offensive line & stud senior running back Gaej Walker. The Tops return four OL starters, including two preseason all-C-USA picks. While held in check last season by the Cards (this feels mostly circumstantial, based on how that game went,) Walker is a versatile runner who can punish defensive fronts. The Cardinal front is anchored in the middle by Jared Goldwire, who I expect to have a big season eating up space in the middle of the Cardinal 3-4. Derek Dorsey, Dayna Kinnaird, and Tabarius Peterson all return at the end positions, but much of the depth is expected to come from newcomers. Yaya Diaby, J’Darien Boykin, and Henry Bryant are all expected to contribute in a big way early on, especially Diaby. The linebacker position is the strength of the defense, returning an experienced 2-deep, led by C.J. Avery, Rodjay Burns, Yasir Abdullah, and Dorian Etheridge. Louisville’s run defense has to improve in year two under Bryan Brown if the Cards are to take the next step. That starts against the Tops.
- Contain Tyrell Pigrome – WKU lost both their starter and top backup from the 2019 roster at the QB position. Enter Tyrrell Pigrome. The Maryland transfer split duties with Josh Jackson last season. He was, in a word, inconsistent. Not a polished passer, he did have success running the football in spots. Kind of an extension of Key #1, UofL has to do a better job containing mobile QBs this season. It starts with Pigrome. I expect to see some read option from the Tops on Saturday. Goldwire and co. need to occupy the linemen and give the backers more freedom to operate. If the defense can neutralize the running game and force Pigrome to the air, Western will have a hard time keeping pace with the Cards.
- New Tackles vs. WKU’s Edge Rushers – Louisville lost both of their starting tackles to the NFL this offseason. Mekhi Becton was drafted 11th overall by the Jets, while Tyler Haycraft has made the Giants practice squad (as a center.) That leaves big shoes for Adonis Boone and Renato Brown to fill. Boone performed well in multiple games (including the Bowl game) in place of Becton, while Brown is the first of the 2019 line signees to get his shot (more on that later.) They have their work cut out for them in the form of C-USA DPOY DeAngelo Malone, who had 11.5 sacks & 21 TFLs last season, and Juwuan Jones, who has 12 career sacks. The new starters will have to get in form quickly, and give Micale Cunningham time to operate in the passing game. As has been documented, Cunningham was third in the country in passer rating when given a clean pocket.
- Reduce Tackles for Loss – YES. TWO STRAIGHT OFFENSIVE LINE-RELATED KEYS. YESSS. For such a successful offense, the Cardinals suffered an alarming number of negative plays last season. With the wealth of talented playmakers returning, Louisville could legitimately be a top 5-type offense if they reduce the amount of TFLs they surrender each game. Obviously all five linemen (and the tight ends, backs, etc) play a part, but when watching film, you’ll notice that the majority of the zone plays that were stopped for a loss last season were busted through the interior line. Defensive linemen were beating the interior three across their faces and blowing up the zone before it could develop. The return of all three inside starters is a massive boost to the overall development of the offense in year two. If you’re a regular reader, you know how often I harp on the “team within the team” that the offensive line is. The more reps these guys get not only in the system, but next to each other the better. The blocking in a zone scheme is like a coordinated ballet. I expect the overall line play to take a step forward behind the progress of the interior three.
- Settle in to the Moment – This has been a long offseason, for all of us. But especially for the players, who have watched as other schools and conferences have canceled their entire seasons. Speculation has run rampant, with talking heads and radio gasbags (such as myself) playing pundit with these student-athletes’ entire lives. It’s been a trying and confusing time for everybody. More so than any other year, these guys have to chomping at the bit to get out on the field. But even when they get there, the entire gameday routine will be different. No Card March, and only a fraction of the usual crowd. But there will be football. It should all make sense between the lines. UofL is the better team. They just have to make sure they settle down and execute. With the type of culture Coach Satterfield and company have built in just a year and a half, I don’t anticipate this to be an issue.
WHAT ELSE I’LL BE WATCHING (SEASON PREVIEW EDITION)
- I’ll be watching Renato Brown closely. He had the inside post for the right tackle spot, having been in the program for a year and present for the abbreviated spring practice. But Trevor Reid is a highly-touted athletic freak who I expected to challenge for the starting job. Not to mention Cam DeGeorge, who brings with him a wealth of starting experience at UConn. By all accounts, Brown has acquitted himself well in camp, but the late arrivals will certainly get reps, and may even crack the starting five if Brown slips, or if either one proves an undeniable force.
- Special Teams: Louisville has had the luxury of not having to worry about either the kicker or punter positions for years, but with both Blanton Creque and Mason King graduating, the Cards are starting over. Enter Brock Travelstead, a highly touted kicker out of Georgia, expected to challenge for the place-kicking duties. On the early depth chart released in July, he was actually listed as the starting punter, while James Turner was listed as the PK. It will be interesting to see how that has shaken out vs. WKU.
- Receiver Depth: As is a constant theme throughout Louisville’s history, receiver is a strength of the team. Obviously we all know TuTu Atwell & Dez Fitzpatrick. But I’m excited to see how the rest of the pieces fit. Justin Marshall, Braden Smith, Corey Reed, and newcomer Christian Fitzpatrick (Dez’s brother) all look to contribute big this season
- The Offensive Playbook: References were made by OC Dwayne Ledford that UofL ran a pretty limited offense last season, which makes me incredibly excited at the prospect of what this season’s offense might look like. If the Cards can get a full season out of Micale Cunningham, watch out.
- The stands, the crowd…it’s gonna get weird. BUT IT’S FOOTBALL!
- I have a weird feeling we are going to get a kick return for a touchdown out of Hassan Hall this weekend.
- Marshon Ford. The former walk-on burst on to the scene last season, scoring seven touchdowns , and factoring heavy as a blocker in the run game. I expect to see his role expand in 2020.
- How much do the newcomers factor on the defensive front? There is potential for three of the top five-six DL to be new to the roster. Yaya Diaby is getting the most buzz, and rightfully so. He might be the key to the pass rush we sorely missed last season.
- As I stated on the pod this week (and previously), I see the offensive line and the defense as a whole similarly, in that I think they will both be improved, but I am unsure to what degree. Both will benefit greatly from continuity within the system, and on the coaching staff. The degree to which the defense improves relies largely on the development of the defensive line. The linebackers are a strength and the DBs are potentially solid, although they face a similar lack of experience as the line when you get beyond the starters.
- A theme all year will be the week to week attrition due to positive Covid tests. At this point, Louisville has an advantage over some other teams in the ACC, as they have had low positives, and virtually no effect on their depth chart. This speaks to a strong culture with full buy-in. Positive cases are inevitable, the ability to control the spread and fallout will be a constant factor.
- Similarly, UofL has had no players opt-out of the season, while several of their opponents (starting with Miami week 2) are missing key pieces. As it stands, Louisville should be favored in all of their games save Notre Dame (unless the season goes south…it won’t go south.)
- The PA booth: Shout-out to Sean Moth, whom I have had the pleasure of knowing for several years. Few could have done what he did, taking over for John Tong and making the PA position at UofL his own. He will be sorely missed. Michael Lattin steps in to the role, at least on the football side. I am sure he will eventually put his own stamp on the job, but it will certainly be odd not hearing the dulcet tones of Sean Moth echoing through Cardinal Stadium.
- My quest for Mama Ledford’s chocolate chip cookies extends to a second season. They will be mine…Oh Yes…they will be mine.
- The Cards in the League. Obviously Lamar, Teddy, Devante, etc…but for me, I will be watching every snap Mekhi Becton plays on Sunday. The kid is the next big (literally) thing.
- Seriously. Those cookies though.
I am going to echo a common sentiment in saying I expect the game to be somewhat close early on, with the Cards taking control around halftime. Western isn’t a pushover, but at the end of the day I think UofL is three scores better than the Tops. The Cards just have too many weapons for WKU, and are the clear class on Saturday.
Louisville – 41
WKU – 24
Damn, it’s good to be back.
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