Five good questions about the 2017 Louisville Cardinals:
1. Can 2016 Heisman Trophy winner Lamar Jackson take home college football’s most prestigious award for a second consecutive season?
Louisville’s three-game losing skid to end last season — and Jackson’s relative struggles (48.4 percent pass completions) in those three games — seem to have taken the luster off the U of L quarterback entering 2017 for some.
On a list of the top 50 players in college football for 2017, ESPN.com had Jackson sixth. Oddsmaker Bovada has the reigning Heisman winner tied for fourth (with Ohio State QB J.T. Barrett) on the list of players most likely to win the award in 2017, behind USC quarterback Sam Darnold, Penn State running back Saquon Barkley and Oklahoma quarterback Baker Mayfield.
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Actually, Jackson’s chances of joining ex-Ohio State running back Archie Griffin (1974 and ’75) as the only players to win the Heisman Trophy twice are likely boosted by the fact he is not entering this season as the prohibitive favorite.
For Jackson to put himself back in the Heisman mix, the junior QB must play well individually in U of L’s two marquee matchups against Clemson (Sept. 16) and at Florida State (Oct. 21). Louisville likely needs to win at least one of those games, and play competitively in the other. The Cards also cannot take any “bad losses” to perceived weaker foes.
Those are not easy bars to clear; but for Jackson and U of L, they are not impossible, either.
2. Can Mike Summers get the Louisville offensive line fixed?
In the three defeats — at Houston, Kentucky and to LSU in the Citrus Bowl — that soured Louisville’s 2016 season after a 9-1 start, U of L QB Lamar Jackson was sacked a whopping 22 times. For the season, the Cardinals’ offensive front surrendered 48 sacks.
To shore up his team’s weak link, Bobby Petrino turned to an old friend, hiring Mike Summers off the staff at Florida to become offensive line coach. Summers, the former Kentucky assistant (2010-12) and Joe B. Hall’s son-in-law, was with Petrino as offensive line coach for the head coach’s first stint at Louisville (2003-06). He also went to the Atlanta Falcons and to Arkansas with Bobby P.
When they worked together at U of L the first time, Petrino and Summers coached some of the most prolific offenses in the country.
To start Summers 2.0, Louisville returns both its starting tackles, juniors Geron Christian and Lukayus McNeil. Summers, however, is experimenting with McNeil at guard and could start two true freshmen, tackle Mekhi Becton and guard Cole Bentley, a Belfry High School product.
After the way last season ended, one would think there’s nowhere to go but up for Louisville on the offensive front.
3. Does Louisville have enough skilled offensive playmakers to take pressure off of Lamar Jackson?
U of L has no returning running back who ran for 400 yards last season. It has no returning receiver who caught 30 passes. So if one of your theories for Louisville’s late-season struggles a season ago is that the 6-foot-3, 207-pound Jackson was asked to do too much and wore down, you have to start with that as a concern again in 2017.
One player being counted on to give Jackson help is former Trinity quarterback Reggie Bonnafon. In his Louisville career, the 6-foot-3, 212-pound Bonnafon started five games at QB as a true freshman in 2014, then transitioned from QB to running back in 2015. Last season, he became primarily a wide receiver. This year, he’s returning to running back.
A season ago, Jackson carried the ball 260 times. If U of L is going to relieve him of some of that load, it needs Bonnafon — or somebody — to emerge as another reliable threat in the backfield.
4. How smooth will the transition be with new U of L defensive coordinator Peter Sirmon?
Apparently, the sight of Kentucky rolling up 581 total yards and 41 points while upsetting No. 11 U of L in Papa John’s Cardinal Stadium last year was Bobby Petrino’s final straw. After the season, he initiated what became a de facto trade of defensive coordinators with Mississippi State. Peter Sirmon left Starkville for Louisville; Todd Grantham went from U of L to MSU.
Louisville returns nine defenders who started last year, including star cornerback Jaire Alexander. U of L also gets back outside linebacker/defensive end Trevon Young, who missed last season recovering from a fractured and dislocated hip suffered in the 2015 Music City Bowl. In 2015, Young had 8.5 sacks.
So Sirmon should be coming into a good situation (UK fans can draw solace from the fact the Wildcats hung 40 points and 554 yards on Sirmon’s MSU defense in 2016).
5. Can Louisville finally break through against Clemson?
Last year, U of L beat Florida State for the first time since joining the ACC in 2014, applying a 63-20 throttling to the Seminoles in The Ville in the season’s third week. This year, Louisville gets Clemson at home in week three.
The Tigers have been the Cardinals’ heartbreak opponent in the ACC. In three meetings, Dabo Swinney and Clemson have beaten U of L by six points, three points and six points.
The big advantage Louisville should have against Clemson in 2017 is that U of L’s star quarterback from last season’s 42-36 loss to the Tigers is back, while Clemson’s national title-winning QB, Deshaun Watson, is now with the Houston Texans.
It will be hard to sell Petrino’s fourth season of his second stint at Louisville as progress if U of L does not break through against the Dabo-men this year.