LOUISVILLE, Ky. – Louisville opens spring practice Tuesday, and the Cardinals are coming off of one of the more bipolar seasons in recent memory.
On the one hand, Louisville saw quarterback Lamar Jackson break virtually every school offensive record en route to winning the Heisman, the Cardinals were contenders in the first few weeks of the College Football Playoff rankings and they finally broke through against the top of the league in blowing out Florida State in September.
On the other hand, Louisville narrowly missed a chance to win at Clemson, lost to rival Kentucky at home and was dominated in its bowl game by LSU.
Louisville will enter spring practice hoping to fix what’s broken and not break what already has worked so well. On the coaching staff, Louisville welcomes in a young defensive coordinator in Peter Sirmon, a new secondary coach in Lorenzo Ward and a new offensive line coach and co-offensive coordinator in Mike Summers, who returns for his second stint with Bobby Petrino in Louisville.
Sirmon, who was at Mississippi State last season, inherits seven returning starters and experienced depth from a defense that sagged at the end of 2016. Summers is being called upon to fix an offensive line that surrendered the most sacks in the nation. And while Jackson loses his top three receivers from 2016, he returns a big-play threat on the outside.
More than anything specific on the field, Louisville needs to solve the mental issues that showed beginning at Clemson in October. Louisville too often got too frustrated too quickly while also checking out mentally until it was almost too late (Virginia, Duke, Wake Forest) or was too late (Kentucky). The Cardinals only compounded their issues by piling up penalties and lost fumbles in the end-of-season losing streak. Becoming a more even-keeled, less mistake-prone team has to be the primary goal of spring 2017.
The three biggest position battles
1. Cornerback: Jaire Alexander was a revelation at cornerback in 2016 and will be an All-America candidate this season as a junior. The cornerback spot opposite him, though, was a version of musical chairs last season. Shaq Wiggins is back for his senior year and will battle Trumaine Washington and Ronald Walker for the starting role. When healthy, Wiggins was the best of those competing for the job, but he has been unable to stay on the field consistently. If he is on the field, Louisville’s cornerbacks will be good as the team has had in recent memory.
2. Guard: Kiola Mahoni was the line’s glaring weakness in the final six games of last season. The staff is hoping Summers’ return and several capable replacements will result in immediate improvements up front. Chandler Jones heads into his redshirt sophomore season with the first shot at the job. Size (6 feet 4, 315 pounds) and run-blocking ability are not a problem for Jones. Assignment clarity and pass blocking will determine if he’s the starter, or winds up battling early enrollee Cole Bentley or four-star summer enrollee Mekhi Becton.
3. Strong safety: Gone are DC Todd Grantham and Josh Harvey-Clemons. Sirmon and Ward have to find a replacement for Harvey-Clemons and his versatility. He sometimes was a deep safety, sometimes a linebacker in the middle of the field and sometimes even a pass rusher. What Louisville asks of its safeties will be different under Sirmon, and there are ample replacements at safety. Dee Smith will get first shot after starting a smattering of games over his first two seasons. If Smith falters, redshirt freshman P.J. Blue and early enrollee and Under Armour All-American C.J. Avery will be waiting in the wings.
The three strongest positions
1. Quarterback: When you return the reigning Heisman winner who rewrote the record books on a nearly weekly basis, it’s a position of strength. But unlike in the past three seasons, there is ample depth. Kyle Bolin heads into his senior season knowing he won’t start and likely won’t even be the primary backup. But he’s experienced and the consummate teammate to the younger quarterbacks. Jawon Pass (6-5, 215) redshirted in 2016 and Petrino is high on his skill set.
2. Wide receiver: No position has been recruited better by Petrino’s staff than wide receiver. Even with the losses of James Quick and Jamari Staples, Louisville enters spring with numerous blue-chip prospects pushing for playing time. Jaylen Smith is the leader of the group (27 receptions, 599 yards, six touchdowns). Seth Dawkins was the only true freshman to play in 2016 (11, 191, one) and is poised to step into Staples’ role. Reggie Bonnafon and Traveon Samuel will push for slot receiver time. Former blue-chip signee Devonte Peete and redshirt freshman Dez Fitzpatrick also will see plenty of snaps this spring.
3. Cornerback: Alexander is Louisville’s next defensive star and there’s now depth across from him with Wiggins back. Wiggins, Washington and Walker give Louisville four dependable corners in spring. Chris Taylor-Yamanoha redshirted in 2016 and figures to push for playing time in the spring as well. While the strong safety and nickel back spots are unknowns, cornerback is the deepest position on the defense.
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