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Don’t assume Bobby Petrino’s offense will fall apart without Lamar Jackson

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Louisville’s personality will change, but the Cardinals’ strengths and weaknesses should remain similar without their superstar.

NCAA Football: Louisville at North Carolina State
Bobby Petrino
Rob Kinnan-USA TODAY Sports

Bill C’s annual preview series of every FBS team in college football continues. Catch up here!

Two different stories percolated through my timeline in late July:

  1. Former Louisville quarterback Lamar Jackson is impressing the Ravens, who are saying he’s further along than they thought he’d be. To those who have been on the “Jackson’s pro conversion will be fine” bandwagon, the response is obvious: Duh. He’d been in an offense (Petrino’s) that uses pro-style concepts.
  2. Without Jackson, Louisville has been picked fifth in the ACC Atlantic division, with zero ACC title votes. Per S&P+, the Cardinals were the second-best team in the league in 2017 despite wholesale turnover and what we’ll call a shaky defensive coordinator hire. And now, with decent continuity (but a change behind center), the Cardinals are predicted to fall into at best the middle of the pack.

Are we complimenting Petrino for prepping Jackson but also saying we don’t think he’ll have his replacement prepped? It’s a slight contradiction, isn’t it? Are we selling Petrino short?

Anytime a team loses such a definitive player, it’s hard to know what to expect.

  • Oh no! Oklahoma State fell apart when Barry Sanders left. Auburn did for a couple of years after Cam Newton left. Florida still hasn’t had a particularly good offense since Tim Tebow left.
  • Eh. Texas A&M got a little worse after Johnny Manziel left but didn’t fall apart. The same goes for Navy post-Keenan Reynolds. Maybe FSU sans Jameis Winston, too.
  • Everything’s fine! Baylor kept posting ridiculous numbers in Robert Griffin III’s absence. Texas and Wisconsin did fine after losing bell-cow backs Ricky Williams and Ron Dayne (and Melvin Gordon, Montee Ball, and 17 other guys), respectively. Missouri won 18 games in the two years after Chase Daniel left. If the program is healthy, it will survive the loss of a star.

Jackson was otherworldly at times, combining stats we’ve rarely seen with highlights we’d never seen. And despite Louisville’s win total slipping in 2017 — a massive missed opportunity, considering FSU’s slippage — he got better after having won the Heisman in 2016. The Cardinals improved from 10th to fifth in Off. S&P+, from eighth to sixth in success rate, and — perhaps most interesting for the NFL crowd — from 21st to 12th in Passing S&P+ and from 16th to fourth in Passing Downs S&P+. Jackson left not only as one of the most dynamic rushing QBs we’ve ever seen, but as a legitimately solid passer, too.

You don’t plug someone into Jackson’s role; you look at all the remaining components and build something new around them. And looking at what the Cardinals have instead of what they don’t, you find hope. Louisville has ...

  • A four-star sophomore quarterback (Jawon Pass) who completed 70 percent in limited action last year and fills the “pocket passer” niche that Petrino has thrived with in the past.
  • Last year’s top three receivers, each of whom averaged at least 9.1 yards per target with at least a 50 percent success rate in 2017.
  • A trio of running backs (Dae Williams, Trey Smith, Colin Wilson) who combined to average 6.6 yards per carry in backup roles. Each is at least 6’ and 220 pounds.
  • Four returning starters, who have combined for 77 career starts, on an offensive line that appeared to do its job better than the year before.
  • A new defensive coordinator. The last one (Peter Sirmon) very much did not take.

Granted, the new coordinator is the frequently recycled Brian VanGorder, who hasn’t really been a part of an improving defense in this decade. But we’re trying to be positive here.

When Petrino says he thinks his offense will be better this year, he’s thinking wishfully, but it’s not entirely without merit. His 2018 offense should look like a Petrino offense, and Petrino offenses are usually quite good.

You’re not entirely convinced, are you? That’s okay; neither am I. But let’s not act too surprised when the Cardinals score a lot.

Offense

2017 Louisville offensive radar

Succeeding the best QB in school history is never an easy task, so it’s almost good that Pass is in no way a Jackson facsimile. He’s taller and 20 pounds heavier, and he looks like a Petrino QB in the Ryan Mallett (okay, not that tall) or Tyler Wilson mode.

He can run a little bit, too. Not including sacks, he rushed nine times for 83 yards and a touchdown last year. He had six for 55 against Murray State, plus a 23-yarder against Kentucky. This is the smallest of samples, but it’s interesting.

Perhaps also interesting: he took four sacks in 37 pass attempts, three in 22 attempts against Murray State. That was his first taste of sustained action, and that will probably improve, but that’s one more similarity with Mallett/Wilson: they both got hit a lot. So just in case Pass gets hurt, get to know Malik Cunningham’s name. The redshirt freshman is the most likely backup, and at 6’1, 185 pounds, he’s much less statuesque.

NCAA Football: Syracuse at Louisville
Jawon Pass
Jamie Rhodes-USA TODAY Sports

All-conference left tackle Geron Christian is gone, so you can’t say this is a perfect situation for a new QB, but you have to like just about everything else, starting with a trio of potential knockouts at receiver.

Jaylen Smith, Dez Fitzpatrick, and Seth Dawkins combined to catch 147 passes for 2,321 yards and 20 scores last year. (Smith underwent an emergency appendectomy at the beginning of August but has been aiming for a Week 1 return.)

Sophomore backups Corey Reed and Josh Johnson caught 11 for 197 in reserve action, too. If Pass looks toward the tight ends, he’ll find senior Micky Crum and sophomore Kemari Averett, who caught seven of seven passes for 79 yards and a score.

The Cardinals do have to replace their top two running backs in Reggie Bonnafon (the QB-turned-WR-turned-RB who didn’t do a heck of a lot at his final position) and Malik Williams, but the trio of Williams, Smith, and Wilson proved as much as possible in a small sample. Williams didn’t get a shot until midway through his redshirt freshman season but averaged 6.2 yards per carry despite over half his carries coming against solid FSU and UVA defenses.

The quantity of options is key. None of the RBs have proved a ton, but any one could turn into a breakthrough back. And with the exciting sophomores (plus a foursome of mid-/high-three-star freshmen) in the receiving corps, UL could withstand injury at WR, too.

When Petrino arrived in 2014, he began pursuing more mobile QBs than those he had at WKU, Arkansas, or UL (the first time). But while Pass will run more than Mallett did, you get the impression this will be more of an old-school Petrino attack, with big RBs and an even bigger QB distributing the ball to a large variety of weapons. That’s not to say it’ll work as well as it often has, but you figure the odds are on Petrino’s side.

NCAA Football: Louisville at North Carolina
Jaylen Smith
Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

Defense

2017 Louisville defensive radar

The improvement of an already awesome offense made the defense’s regression doubly disappointing. The Cardinals ranked 19th in Def. S&P+ in 2016 under Todd Grantham’s leadership, but when Grantham took the Mississippi State DC job, Petrino plucked Sirmon away from MSU. It was a lopsided trade. MSU improved from 73rd to 19th, while UL fell to 84th.

The Cardinals had a couple of problems.

First, though they had four strong play-makers at defensive end/outside linebacker (Trevon Young, Jon Greenard, James Hearns, and Stacy Thomas combined to make 48.5 tackles for loss and 21.5 sacks), any time one of the four didn’t make a play in the backfield, opponents succeeded.

This was doubly true for a run defense that ranked 103rd in rushing success rate. The Cardinals didn’t allow many huge plays, but that only matters so much when an opponent can get five or six yards any time it wants.

2017 Louisville defensive efficiency & explosiveness

The other problem was that, when cornerback Jaire Alexander wasn’t on the field, the pass defense was awfully bad.

  • UL pass defense, six games with Alexander: 51% completion rate, 12.5 yards per completion, 4.4% INT rate, 107.0 passer rating
  • UL pass defense, seven games without Alexander: 66% completion rate, 13.5 yards per completion, 2.2% INT rate, 157.7 passer rating

Alexander’s gone for good, a first-round pick to the Packers. Corner Trumaine Washington (14 passes defensed) is gone, too, as are top safeties Chucky Williams and Zykiesis Cannon. While new blood for a unit that struggled isn’t the end of the world, it’s no guarantee of improvement.

NCAA Football: Louisville vs Purdue
TreSean Smith
Jamie Rhodes-USA TODAY Sports

As has often been the case in Petrino’s time, UL will rely on transfers. Oklahoma transfer P.J. Mbanasor, Ohio State transfer Rodjay Burns, and four-star JUCO transfer Marlon Character Jr. join four-star sophomore Russ Yeast to fill the CB two-deep. There’s a lot of upside, with no continuity.

At safety, Dee Smith, Khane Pass, and TreSean Smith saw a lot of playing time last year. Dee, a senior, didn’t disrupt much, but Pass and TreSean did combine for seven TFLs.

The front seven will have its own new names. Of that disruptive quartet, only Greenard returns. He’ll need help from some combination of sophomores Tabarius Peterson and C.J. Avery, South Carolina transfer Boosie Whitlow, and JUCO transfer Michael Boykin.

Inside linebackers Dorian Etheridge and Isaac Stewart are back, as are tackles Henry Famurewa and G.G. Robinson. They are experienced, at least, even if they haven’t made many plays.

NCAA Football: Syracuse at Louisville
Jonathan Greenard
Jamie Rhodes-USA TODAY Sports

Then there’s VanGorder. Perhaps it’s a sign of the pool of candidates that are available and willing to work with Petrino, but this was — to say the least — an uninspiring hire. This isn’t entirely fair, as VanGorder can hold a fort; in 2012 he inherited an Auburn defense that had ranked 62nd in Def. S&P+ and produced a No. 56 ranking, and after inheriting a Notre Dame defense that had ranked 31st in 2013, he produced an average ranking of 34th over three years.

(We’ll overlook the fact that Georgia had its worst defense in three seasons when VanGorder was an analyst there in 2016, or that Oklahoma State’s coordinator got fired in 2017 after bringing VanGorder on as an analyst. Pointing that out would be superfluous and kind of mean.)

Holding the fort is fine if you’ve got a decent one already. But Louisville’s defense desperately needs to improve. It’s been a while since VanGorder did that.

Special Teams

Louisville turned this unit over to underclasssmen and thrived anyway. The Cardinals improved to 39th in Special Teams S&P+ with a sophomore punter (Mason King, who averaged 43.9 yards), a sophomore kicker (Blanton Creque, who made 17 of 20 FGs), a sophomore kick returner (Seth Dawkins) and, for part of the time, a freshman punt returner (Russ Yeast). Dawkins and Yeast weren’t dominant, but this should remain a strength.

2018 outlook

2018 Schedule & Projection Factors

Date Opponent Proj. S&P+ Rk Proj. Margin Win Probability
1-Sep vs. Alabama 2 -17.7 15%
8-Sep Indiana State NR 51.2 100%
15-Sep Western Kentucky 90 16.4 83%
22-Sep at Virginia 73 7.6 67%
29-Sep Florida State 18 -0.5 49%
5-Oct Georgia Tech 53 8.2 68%
13-Oct at Boston College 48 2.8 56%
27-Oct Wake Forest 34 4.4 60%
3-Nov at Clemson 3 -18.6 14%
9-Nov at Syracuse 71 7.3 66%
17-Nov N.C. State 37 4.6 60%
24-Nov Kentucky 64 10.0 72%
Projected S&P+ Rk 29
Proj. Off. / Def. Rk 5 / 98
Projected wins 7.1
Five-Year S&P+ Rk 12.8 (13)
2- and 5-Year Recruiting Rk 28 / 34
2017 TO Margin / Adj. TO Margin* 2 / 3.1
2017 TO Luck/Game -0.4
Returning Production (Off. / Def.) 46% (54%, 38%)
2017 Second-order wins (difference) 8.5 (-0.5)

Sometimes it’s nice to step back and see what S&P+ is seeing. When a team loses its center of gravity, it’s hard to see a clear picture, but the S&P+ projections can help us cut through.

S&P+ sees a team that loses its QB but otherwise has enough offensive continuity to produce at a top-five level. It sees a defense that bombed last year and now has extreme turnover where it tends to hurt the most (the secondary). Ignoring the defensive coordinator, it projects a fall from 84th to 98th in Def. S&P+.

So there’s a chance we’ll see an even more offense-reliant team this fall.

But there’s a chance we also see a good team. The Cardinals are projected 29th overall; they are projected to take double-digit losses against Alabama and Clemson but otherwise given a 49 percent win probability or better in every game. There are lots of relative tossups, with a projected average win total of 7.1. It’s not hard to envision the Cardinals matching last year’s win total.

This shouldn’t be surprising, by the way. Petrino’s only once won fewer than eight games in 13 years as a college head coach, Lamar Jackson or not.

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