The Louisville coaching staff knew with the move from the collapsing Big East to the ACC, the stage would be bigger, the competition would be better and the need to improve recruiting would be urgent. The Cardinals’ staff responded well to that urgency.
With the 2017 recruiting class, Louisville coach Bobby Petrino and his newly made-over coaching staff continued the program’s upward trend, signing a class that will keep the Cardinals closer to the competition ahead of them in Florida State and Clemson and continue to distance themselves from the rest of the Atlantic Division.
According to each of the four major recruiting services, Louisville signed a class rated just outside the top 25 nationally and in the top half of the ACC. In most years, with the dearth of talent produced in the state of Kentucky, Louisville will struggle to sign classes that match the overall depth of other major programs.
A class of this caliber is one of the best in school history and will help keep the Cardinals in the upper half of the ACC.
With a Heisman Trophy winner, video-game numbers and Petrino’s reputation for offensive output, it shouldn’t shock anyone that Louisville was able to sign another four-star quarterback (Malik Cunningham), a four-star running back (Colin Wilson), and three talented receivers. But Louisville added talent across the board (with the notable exception of the defensive line).
The Cardinals beat out power programs such as Virginia Tech, Florida, Michigan and Miami for all five offensive line signees and signed three four-star defensive backs as well. Four-star safety CJ Avery spurned both Mississippi schools to enroll early at Louisville. Three-star safety TreSean Smith stuck with Louisville despite pursuit from Notre Dame. And the son of former Kentucky great Craig Yeast, Russ Yeast, flipped from Kentucky to Louisville and stuck with the Cardinals despite a last-second visit to Notre Dame.
Marquee Recruit: S CJ Avery. The four-star prospect is one of the highest-rated players to ever sign with Louisville. With the loss of Josh Harvey-Clemons, Louisville was in desperate need of a safety with the size to drop down into the box and play the run (at times Harvey-Clemons was the middle linebacker on passing downs). Avery was an Under Armour All-American with offers from every major program across the south.
The one who got away: DL Aaron Odom. Defensive line wasn’t the most pressing position of need, but Louisville still needed to add versatility and depth. Odom gave them that. He flipped to the Cardinals with two weeks to go before National Signing Day but on Wednesday morning signed with Mississippi State, where he had previously been committed. Louisville should be OK for the 2017 season, but his last-second departure leaves this class with a hole at the defensive line. The Cardinals will need to load up on the line in 2018.
Position of strength: Offensive line. What was without question the weakest unit on the team in 2016 is poised to become a team strength in the future thanks to the five offensive lineman signees Louisville reeled in. All five offensive line recruits were rated four stars by at least one of the major recruiting services and Louisville beat major programs for each of them. Cole Bentley played for rural eastern Kentucky power Belfry and is a rare instance of Louisville getting a high-profile recruit from outside of the city of Louisville. Ronald Rudd is one of the top junior college linemen in the country that Louisville flipped from UCLA. Caleb Chandler picked Louisville over Florida. Toryque Bateman picked Louisville over Miami. And on signing day, Louisville got a big boost when Mekhi Becton picked the Cardinals over in-state favorite Virginia Tech and heavy pursuit from Michigan.
Position of worry: Defensive line. Louisville lost Sheldon Rankins and Pio Vatuvei last year. This year, it loses DeAngelo Brown at nose tackle. While there are several players returning who have contributed quite a bit, there was need to add a versatile player with size at end and a true nose; Louisville failed to find either. The pressure will be on the class of 2018 to find multiple players who can contribute early on the defensive line.
Recruits to watch this spring: With the loss of both guards and center, Cole Bentley will have every opportunity to push for early playing time. Outside of quarterbacks, nobody benefits more from enrolling early than offensive linemen. Bentley is a nasty run blocker and is very mobile for his size. That type of athlete will be hard to keep out of one of the open guard spots. Avery also enrolled early and even if he isn’t able to immediately unseat redshirt freshman PB Blue and junior Dee Smith for the strong safety spot, it’s hard to imagine him not seeing the field right away in nickle and dime sets.
(You can follow Mark Ennis on Twitter @MarkEnnis)
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