By Sam Draut–
After defeating Texas A&M in the Music City Bowl, Louisville football headed into offseason with added momentum and hype. The roster returns 18 starters from an 8-5 season in 2015. Coach Bobby Petrino and the Cardinals begin Spring Practice today with a few presiding questions worth attempting to answer over the next four weeks.
Five of the 15 practices will be open to the public (March 22, 29, 30, April 5,6) all starting at 3:50 p.m. and the 2016 Spring Game will be played at Papa John’s Cardinal Stadium on April 16 at 1 p.m.
“I am really looking forward to the spring, we have a lot of players coming back,” Petrino said.
Will Lamar Jackson progress as a quarterback?
There may not be a faster quarterback in college football than Jackson, and he showed off his potential in the final two games of the 2015 season. The Boynton Beach, FL native rushed for 186 yards and two touchdowns while passing for 130 yards against Kentucky in the final game of the regular season.
A month later, Jackson accumulated 453 yards of total offense in Louisville’s 27-21 bowl win. He rushed for 226 yards and two touchdowns as Texas A&M struggled to slow down the read-option. Jackson passed for 227 yards and two touchdowns as well.
The raw ability and athleticism is undoubtedly there for the 6-foot-3 quarterback, but the next question for Jackson is if he can develop his ability as a signal caller. Jackson spent time on his footwork during Louisville’s practices leading up to the bowl game. Becoming a more comfortable and confident pocket passer will be important for Jackson’s progression as a quarterback.
What will the new co-offensive coordinators bring?
Garrick McGee spent two years at U of L, but abruptly left Petrino’s staff once longtime friend Lovie Smith was hired as the head coach of Illinois. The position was filled by West Virginia wide receivers coach Lonnie Galloway and U of L offensive line coach Chris Klenakis. The two will work in tandem as co-offensive coordinators.
“I am really excited about Lonnie Galloway coming in as the co-offensive coordinator and coach Klenakis joining him in that role,” Petrino said. “Coach Klenakis totally deserves to be the co-offensive coordinator, he knows the offense well, we have been together for a long time.”
Though Petrino calls the plays, he said the coordinators have a huge role in installing the offense. Klenakis and Galloway will each bring unique knowledge to the offensive game plan. Klenakis spent time at Nevada from 2007-09 as the offensive coordinator directing the pistol formation with future NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick. Galloway had two separate stints at West Virginia coaching the wide receivers and teaching an air attack offense.
“It is going to work great, I have always watched and enjoyed his (Galloway) work,” Klenakis said.
How will Sheldon Rankins and James Burgess be replaced?
Possibly the biggest news of the offseason for U of L and defensive coordinator Todd Grantham was the return of four playmakers who considered forgoing their final collegiate years for the NFL. Keith Kelsey, Josh Harvey-Clemons, Devonte Fields and DeAngelo Brown all decided to return to Louisville, beefing up a defense that now brings back nine starters from a year ago.
“One of our advantages going into the spring is our experience,” Petrino said. “Our guys have competed against a lot of good players last year.”
Although the defense returns plenty of playmaking and experience, the Cardinals front seven lost two of its most consistent contributors from the past few years due to graduation.
Sheldon Rankins, a projected first round pick in the NFL draft, used his versatility on the defensive line to disrupt plays and work into opponent’s backfields. In the past two years, Rankins totaled 111 tackles, 26.5 tackles for a loss and 14 sacks.
James Burgess finished in the top-three of Cardinal tacklers each of the past three seasons. The linebacker had 260 total tackles and 30 tackles for a loss in his career at Louisville.
Along with Rankins and Burgess, Louisville will more than likely be without edge rusher Trevon Young, who dislocated his hip in the Music City Bowl after recording 8.5 sacks in 2015. Petrino said Young would not participate in spring practices.
Grantham will need to find new playmakers to replace Rankins and Burgess.
Who is the next placekicker?
For the first time in four years, Louisville doesn’t have a proven place kicker heading into spring practices. John Wallace made 66 career field goals, breaking Art Carmody’s previous set record of 60. Wallace made 96.4 percent of his extra points, including a perfect 50 for 50 in his junior year.
Louisville also lost its starting punter from 2015, Josh Appleby, to graduation.
Can the offense develop an identity?
Going into his third year in his second stint at Louisville, Petrino’s team has yet to find an offensive identity. Four different quarterbacks have started over a two year span, all with unique abilities and style, but never consistent enough to hold onto the starting spot for too long.
Jackson playing in the final two games of 2015 makes him the clear cut starter for the upcoming season. But the quarterback’s athleticism and read-option talents are skills Petrino hasn’t designed an offense around before. Will Petrino give way to his well-known pro-style attack for an offense more centered around Jackson’s specific skill set?
As Jackson and Kyle Bolin switched off as starting quarterbacks week-to-week last season, it seemed Petrino was hesitant to fully commit to the read-option style offense until the final two games against Kentucky and Texas A&M.
Photo by Wade Morgen / The Louisville Cardinal