By Dalton Ray —
Last November, ESPN’s college football analyst Booger McFarland said Louisville football was, “Lamar Jackson and a bunch of dudes.” The Cardinal faithful immediately whipped up into a frenzy on social media. A week after the statement, U of L’s three-game losing streak began.
McFarland’s statement may have been an exaggeration, but it didn’t seem too far off by looking at the season’s result.
Fast forward to 2017.
For the first time in recent memory, two potential All-Americans lead the way for Louisville. Jackson and cornerback Jaire Alexander pioneer the Cardinals into Bobby Petrino’s fourth year back at Papa John’s Cardinal Stadium.
Viewing the depth chart, players like linebacker Stacy Thomas, safety Chucky Williams and tackle Geron Christian stand out, but there aren’t many more after that.
Unproven players in starting positions is a common theme across the starting 22 for the Cards.
Let’s take a look at the offense.
Reggie Bonnafon, now a running back, is an exceptional athlete, but never seems to separate himself when the pads are on. Jeremy Smith will share time with Bonnafon in the backfield, but has battled injury problems this offseason.
Jaylen Smith and Seth Dawkins are expected to be Jackson’s top targets this season. Smith has progressed through two seasons, but struggled with drops since being at U of L, and Dawkins is simply uncertain. Will the two sink or swim when they’re in the limelight?
The tight end group has a career total of 344 receiving yards between two juniors and a senior.
Despite Petrino being this deep into his second tenure, there are still questions on the offensive line.
Christian, a future NFL draft pick, and Lukayus McNeil lock down two positions and potentially an entire side of the line.
Robbie Bell fought off walk-on Nate Scheler to earn the center spot. True freshman Mehki Becton will likely open the season as a starter because of his massive size, 6-foot-7 and 340 lbs.
Shifting to the defense, the line is the weakness there as well. The starters are more than serviceable, but the players behind them are questionable.
The dismissal of Chris Williams forces two redshirt freshmen into immediate backup roles.
Defensive end Johnathan Greenard played limited action last season but is a rising sophomore.
If James Hearns can impact more than a quarter of games and if Trevon Young’s hip injury is completely in the past, they could form one of the ACC’s top edge-rushing duos.
With defensive coordinator Peter Sirmon’s scheme, Thomas is the only true linebacker on the field. The two other linebacker spots are filled by converted safeties.
With the expected starting personnel, Sirmon is running more of a 4-2-5 defense. That style of defense is built around athletes flying to the ball.
Sirmon must find a defensive identity to have something to fall back on.
The team’s strength is the secondary. The most experienced group on the field, the defensive backs are a safety net for the defense.
Looking at the schedule, Louisville will likely be favored in 11 of their 12 games. Even with questionable spots across the starting lineup, U of L’s talent should give them double-digit wins.
Uncertainty can go either way. The eight new offensive starters could thrive in their new role. Defensively, Sirmon’s player-friendly scheme could allow his players to play relaxed and perform at a high level.
Jackson is one of the most explosive players in college football since the turn of the century. That alone gives U of L a chance in every game. There’s no question about the player he is.
When evaluating the team, there is a question fans and experts need to consider: Take away Jackson and how good is Louisville?
You can follow Dalton Ray on Twitter @dray5477.
File photo / The Louisville Cardinal