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Louisville has Lamar Jackson, but all of 2016’s weaknesses might return

That glaring issue from last year? Not necessarily solved.

NCAA Football: Louisville at Virginia Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

Stefan Lefors, Brian Brohm, Casey Dick, Ryan Mallett, Tyler Wilson, Brandon Doughty.

In his first nine seasons as a college head coach, Bobby Petrino was the mentor for some massively successful quarterbacks. Those six averaged more than 3,100 passing yards per season with 2.4 touchdowns to every interception and a 151.5 passer rating. If you take out Petrino’s first seasons at Arkansas and WKU, the passer rating rises to 158.2.

In those nine seasons, these quarterbacks also amassed 481 net rushing yards. Jackson had 526 net yards four games into the 2016 season.

Petrino is a damn evil genius. He will forever be the guy who flirted with every job within a 1,000-mile radius in the mid-2000s; the guy who was angling for former boss Tommy Tuberville’s Auburn job; who finally left Louisville after years of flirtation and rumors, only to leave his new job not even a full year in; and who nearly took Arkansas to the BCS title game, then lost his job because of the lies that followed a motorcycle crash.

He’s also now the guy who decided, upon his 2014 return to Louisville, that he wanted to dabble in the universe of dual-threat quarterbacks. And he’s the guy who, within three seasons of adaptation, had himself a Heisman winning quarterback.

It started with Reggie Bonnafon. When Petrino came aboard, he kept Bonnafon on the commit list, then added another dual-threat, Pat Thomas from a JUCO, after National Signing Day. Bonnafon threw 144 passes over two seasons before moving to receiver in 2016 and, evidently, running back in 2017. Thomas moved to receiver.

Bonnafon couldn’t stay at quarterback because midway through 2015, four-star true freshman Jackson began to figure things out.

A product of Boynton Beach, Fla., Jackson was well-regarded, but on the 247Sports Composite list of dual-threat QBs, he ranked behind players who either have yet to earn a starting job (Oklahoma State’s John Kolar, Ohio State’s Joe Burrow) or have already changed positions (UNC’s Anthony Ratliff-Williams, Tennessee’s Jauan Jennings). But those guys didn’t sign up to play for the quarterback whisperer.

In last year’s Louisville preview, I said this:

Upside, upside, upside. It's impossible not to use the word. Jackson didn't finalize his starting role until the bowl game, he was part of plenty of iffy performances, his INT and fumble rates were a little bit high, and his sack rate was far too high. But he still threw for 1,840 yards, and before factoring in sacks, he still rushed for 1,143. If that's the unvarnished version ... goodness.

If Jackson ends up Louisville's primary quarterback all year (meaning, if he stays healthy and doesn't fall into a slump), he should pass 2,500 passing yards and 1,500 rushing yards. That's incredible in and of itself. The question is, how many glitches will we see?

Yeah, 2,500 and 1,500 were undercutting it. In his first full year, Jackson threw for 3,543 yards, and not including sacks, he rushed for 1,896. Combined touchdowns: 51. During a 9-1 start, the Cardinals scored at least 44 points in eight games and posted 36 points and 568 yards against eventual national champion Clemson in Death Valley. Jackson had the Heisman secured by basically midseason.

Of course, it’s good he had things squared away, because the final act was ... lacking. After reaching No. 3 in mid-November, the Cardinals finished by getting blown out at Houston, upset at home by rival Kentucky, and run out of the Citrus Bowl by LSU. After averaging 49.6 points per game through 10, they scored a combined 57 during this losing streak, and 38 came in one game (UK). Suddenly, Jackson’s line couldn’t protect him, and his receivers couldn’t hold onto his passes.

The mid-November hiccup isn’t new for a championship-level Petrino team. In 2006, he had Louisville to third in the country, but the Cards lost at No. 15 Rutgers. In 2011, his best Arkansas team was third when it bolted to a 14-0 lead at No. 1 LSU ... and gave up a 41-3 run.

Jackson’s still only a junior-to-be, though. Can Louisville put together another run before he either leaves for the pros or runs out of eligibility? Jackson’s still going to be awesome, mind you, but he heads in without last year’s best rusher, his top three receiving targets, and three of last year’s starting linemen. And the defense is reasonably experienced, but must replace a successful coordinator.

The schedule will help. S&P+ projects UL as a healthy favorite in 10 of 12 games and as only a slight underdog (by 1.7 points at home to Clemson) in one of the other two. But two of the toughest games (at UNC, Clemson) happen in the first three weeks of the year, when the offense might still be under transition. If the Cardinals start 3-0, they are well on their way to 10 wins or more. But a 1-2 start is on the table, too.

Louisville v Houston
Bobby Petrino
Photo by Thomas B. Shea/Getty Images

2016 in review

2016 Louisville statistical profile.

Louisville vs. Vegas

It all worked. Until it didn’t.

  • First 4 games (4-0): Avg. percentile performance: 95% (~top 5) | Avg. yards per play: UL 9.0, Opp 3.9 (plus-5.1) | Avg. performance vs. S&P+ projection: plus-29.9 PPG
  • Next 6 games (5-1): Avg. percentile performance: 85% (~top 20) | Avg. yards per play: UL 7.0, Opp 4.5 (plus-2.5) | Avg. performance vs. S&P+ projection: minus-2.2 PPG
  • Last 3 games (0-3): Avg. percentile performance: 34% (~top 85) | Avg. yards per play: Opp 6.0, UL 5.1 (minus-0.9) | Avg. performance vs. S&P+ projection: minus-31.7 PPG

Louisville had the same offensive weaknesses throughout the season; Jackson’s completion rate was 58 percent even during the Cardinals’ torrid 4-0 start, and it was 56 percent for the season. Meanwhile, Jackson took a ton of sacks (10 percent sack rate). If you were going to slow them down, the formula — sell out to stop the run, hope the receivers drop some passes (or Jackson misfires), then overwhelm the UL line in pass rush — was obvious.

It’s just that no one could do it until UL went to Houston and got destroyed by Ed Oliver, Steven Taylor, and company. Given a firmer blueprint, LSU defensive coordinator Dave Aranda was able to dial up a winning game plan, too.

Still ... wow, what a ridiculous start. Louisville was maybe the best team in the country over the first four weeks, and now Petrino has had another offseason to make adjustments.


Offense

This offensive radar is less a chart and more a puzzle with two missing pieces:

Louisville offensive radar

Full advanced stats glossary.

Louisville’s weaknesses were both sparse and stark. The Cardinals were elite at almost everything, but when they fell behind schedule, they fell far behind schedule.

Louisville’s strengths are obvious. Jackson is terrifying in the open field — part of the problem with selling out to get him is that it might not work if you don’t have LSU- or Oliver-level talent — and while Radcliff is gone, exciting backups Jeremy Smith and Malik Williams (combined: 76 carries, 527 yards, nine touchdowns) are back, and four-star freshman Colin Wilson is big and exciting, too. Plus, Bonnafon has shown enough promise to end up atop the running backs depth chart.

All four backs are at least 6’1 and at least 212 pounds. Elite defenses aside, they don’t need a ton of help from their line. They’re everything Jackson needs to distract most defenses.

Florida State v Louisville
Jeremy Smith
Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images

At a few points, however, Louisville is going to have to pass. And not only is Jackson going to be protected by a line that returns just two starters, but there’s also not a senior in sight up front. Returning tackles Geron Christian and Lukayus McNeil are juniors, as are most of the potential new starters.

Plus, when Jackson’s surveying the field, he’s not going to find wideouts Jamari Staples and James Quick or tight end Cole Hikutini. The three combined for 131 catches, 2,052 yards, 16 touchdowns, and a 55 percent success rate. Yeah, there were some drops late. There were also lots of catches.

That’s not to say the receiving corps doesn’t still have potential. Junior Jaylen Smith and sophomore Seth Dawkins combined for 38 catches and 790 yards, and junior Traveon Samuel had the best success rate among regular UL WRs. There’s a world of potential, and as with the RB position, there’s quite a bit of size. Samuel’s tiny, but Smith and Dawkins are at least 6’3, junior Devante Peete is 6’6, and four-star redshirt freshman Dez Fitzpatrick is 6’2.

Louisville v Virginia
Jaylen Smith
Photo by Chet Strange/Getty Images

Be it by Clemson, Florida State, or maybe an NC State or Boston College, Louisville will be forced to pass. The result will determine whether this is a good season or one that is even better than last year.

Defense

Louisville defensive radar

The Louisville defense saw diminishing returns. Part of that was probably related — when the offense stopped doing as well, the defense couldn’t tee off on desperate opponents. But there was also a “nowhere to go but down” aspect.

Todd Grantham’s final Cardinal defense was mean; UL attacked the run and made you one-dimensional. Granted, they weren’t good enough at stopping the pass to master this, but all three Petrino-Grantham defenses ranked 21st or better in Def. S&P+. When you’ve got a Heisman quarterback at your disposal, that should be more than enough.

Grantham was lured away to run his 3-4 defense at Mississippi State, and instead of promoting someone from within, Petrino took a chance by bringing in an outsider. Strangely enough, it was a trade: Grantham went to Starkville, and Petrino brought in former MSU defensive coordinator Peter Sirmon.

Sirmon is known more for recruiting than defense. He was the recruiting coordinator at USC and Washington — you could see why Petrino, stuck in a division with FSU and Clemson, would be willing to attempt an upgrade in this regard — but his first MSU defense was lacking. The Bulldogs slumped to 73rd in Def. S&P+ thanks to a rebuilt secondary.

Louisville v Clemson
James Hearns
Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images

Sirmon’s first Louisville defense will be more experienced than his last one, at least. Instead of a strict 3-4 structure, he tends to lean toward multiplicity, and his returning personnel might be suited.

OLB-turned-defensive end James Hearns is fast enough to line up without a hand on the ground but is big enough to potentially do damage as a traditional end. And the return of Trevon Young from injury gives him a nice dance partner. In their last seasons, they combined for 16.5 sacks. Inside linebacker Stacy Thomas is a nice complement in run defense.

Replacing DeAngelo Brown could be the key. He was a rare, active force on the interior of Grantham’s three-man line, recording 14 tackles for loss, mostly of the non-sack variety. He was huge in rendering opponents one-dimensional, and while senior tackles Drew Bailey, Chris Williams, and big De’Asian Richardson are all back, they weren’t quite as disruptive as Brown. Combined, they managed only four more TFLs than him.

Florida State v Louisville
Chucky Williams
Photo by Bobby Ellis/Getty Images

The secondary was a revolving door, and it showed. Of the top eight tacklers, only two played in all 13 games, and this appeared to wear particularly on the cornerbacks. Trumaine Washington went from seven TFLs and 10 passes defensed to one and eight, respectively, and fellow starter Shaq Wiggins missed nearly half the year.

This created too many glitches. Louisville ranked 17th in Rushing S&P+ but only 67th in Passing S&P+. And when the glitches showed up, they didn’t go away. The Cardinals allowed just a 110.3 passer rating in wins but a 156.6 in four losses. In two shootout losses, Clemson managed a 181.3, and more egregiously, Kentucky had a 187.8. Think that might have been important?

Wiggins and safety Josh Harvey-Clemons are gone, but corners Washington, Jaire Alexander, and Ronald Walker are all back, as are senior safeties Chucky Williams and Zykiesis Cannon. This is an experienced unit, at least, and if the front seven remains sturdy, the pass defense will likely suffice most of the time at least.


Special Teams

Alexander is important as a cornerback but dynamite as a punt returner; he averaged 10.5 yards per return with a touchdown and was the reason UL ranked 18th in punt return success rate. Punter Mason King averaged 43.9 yards as a freshman, too.

The rest of the unit was lacking, however; Blanton Creque and Evan O’Hara were fine on shorter kicks but just 2-for-6 outside of 40 yards, and only 11 percent of the kickoffs from Creque and Anthony George ended in touchbacks. The result of that was a No. 73 overall Special Teams S&P+ ranking. Everybody’s back; with another six or eight yards of place-kicking range, that should be more better than worse.


2017 outlook

2017 Schedule & Projection Factors

Date Opponent Proj. S&P+ Rk Proj. Margin Win Probability
2-Sep vs. Purdue 87 24.7 92%
9-Sep at North Carolina 38 9.0 70%
16-Sep Clemson 6 -1.7 46%
23-Sep Kent State 123 36.2 98%
30-Sep Murray State NR 50.3 100%
7-Oct at N.C. State 27 6.1 64%
14-Oct Boston College 76 23.0 91%
21-Oct at Florida State 3 -10.2 28%
28-Oct at Wake Forest 64 13.1 78%
11-Nov Virginia 70 21.0 89%
18-Nov Syracuse 60 17.5 84%
25-Nov at Kentucky 41 9.6 71%
Projected S&P+ Rk 14
Proj. Off. / Def. Rk 17 / 17
Projected wins 9.1
Five-Year S&P+ Rk 11.6 (20)
2- and 5-Year Recruiting Rk 34 / 33
2016 TO Margin / Adj. TO Margin* -7 / -5.1
2016 TO Luck/Game -0.7
Returning Production (Off. / Def.) 69% (58%, 80%)
2016 Second-order wins (difference) 9.6 (-0.6)

Most of the reasons Louisville was good last year remain in place. The skill corps remains full of big, athletic dudes, the Cardinals should still be able to attack from the edges of the defense (be they lined up in a 3-4 or 4-3), and Lamar Jackson is still Lamar Jackson. In fact, he might be at least a little bit better.

That alone will be enough for at least seven or eight wins in and of itself. But the Cardinals have to travel to UNC, NC State, Florida State, Wake Forest, and Kentucky and of course welcome Clemson early in the year. And the reasons why Louisville collapsed late in the year — diminishing returns on defense, a letdown from Jackson’s supporting cast — haven’t really been fixed either.

We don’t know if his line can protect him any better when a good pass rush starts attacking. If he’s a bit more harried, we don’t know if his skill guys will help him out. And in terms of known on-paper results, the Cardinals just underwent a clear downgrade in the defensive coordinator department.

In his fourth year at Louisville the first time around, his Cardinals went 12-1 and finished sixth in the country. In his fourth year at Arkansas, the Hogs went 11-2 and finished fifth. Petrino has a knack for finding answers, so he probably gets the benefit of the doubt. But that offensive line and that coordinator hire scare me a bit.

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