2015 CFB Preview – Louisville

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So far, so good for Part 2 of the Bobby Petrino regime.

By Rich Cirminiello | @RichCirminiello

What you need to know about the offense: Most of the offensive chatter this offseason has been reserved for the quarterback derby involving Reggie Bonnafon, Tyler Ferguson and Kyle Bolin. And yes, the outcome of that battle will directly impact Louisville’s 2015 bottom line. But quarterback is just one of numerous issues that must be addressed by an offense that sputtered in its first year without QB Teddy Bridgewater. The Cards are also adjusting to life without WR DeVante Parker, a first-round pick of the Miami Dolphins, and much of an O-line that underachieved a year ago. Transfers Ja’Quay Savage (Texas A&M) and Jamari Staples (UAB) have joined James Quick at wide receiver, and TE Keith Towbridge is set to be a factor in the passing game. Up front, Louisville lost a ton to graduation, leaving OT Aaron Epps to headline an iffy unit. If the blockers don’t block, especially against quality defenses, it’s going to hamper the ability of emerging RB Brandon Radcliff to pick up where he left off late last year. Bobby Petrino is an offensive wiz, but he’ll have his hands full again this summer.

What you need to know about the defense: It’s a little-known fact that Louisville has ranked in the top 25 in total D five straight years, a run of uncommon consistency. And while Charlie Strong was the architect before taking the Texas job, current coordinator Todd Grantham did a solid job of keeping the unit on track in 2014. But now he’s overseeing a fair amount of changes, including the insertion of seven new starters into the lineup. Grantham is banking on instant contributions from three high-profile transfers, OLB Devonte Fields, S Josh Harvey-Clemons and CB Shaq Wiggins. He’s also counting on a few holdovers, like DE Pio Vatuvei, LB Keith Brown and S Chucky Williams, to capitalize on starting opportunities. As the secondary gels, the Cardinals can lean heavily on a dynamite front seven that’s dotted with All-ACC candidates and will be stifling versus the run. The personnel may be changing in Louisville, but all indications point to a continuation of the stout defensive effort that’s become customary on this campus. There’s just too much individual talent for this unit to endure a significant setback.

Last season was one of significant change at Louisville, from a new coach and quarterback to beginning life as the newest member of the ACC. All things considered, the Cardinals fared quite well in their brave new world, going 9-4 and almost upsetting league honchos Florida State and Clemson. And the fast start has the program bullish on the future, especially since stability and coaching turnover are no longer factors as the 2015 season approaches.

Bobby Petrino’s staff is intact, three returning quarterbacks started games in 2014 and the league isn’t such a mystery any longer. Plus, the school has hoarded talented transfers, bolstering the roster with veterans, such as Devonte Fields, Shaq Wiggins and Josh Harvey-Clemons, who’ve previously enjoyed success with other FBS programs.

Louisville had 10 players drafted by the NFL in the spring, one of a handful of indicators that the program is capable of competing with anyone in the ACC … including the Noles and the Tigers. The Cardinals have no problem attracting playmakers, even if it means leaving the region to do so. And the staff is an asset, with Petrino ably supported by coordinators Garrick McGee on offense and Todd Grantham on D. Now, the team just needs to decide on its permanent successor to Teddy Bridgewater at quarterback.

As expected, the offense sputtered against tough opponents in its first season without Bridgewater under center. But it’s Year 2 for Petrino, one of the game’s best quarterback teachers, so an uptick at the position is anticipated. It’s just that no one is certain who that triggerman will be. Sophomore Reggie Bonnafon is the bettor’s choice, but Tyler Ferguson fits the stereotypical Petrino hurler, and incumbent Will Gardner won’t return form last year’s knee injury until the summer.

Despite a spate of changes, the Louisville defense could be title-caliber. However, repeating—or surpassing—last year’s mark rests on an offense that still needs to anoint a quarterback, find a No. 1 receiver and fix a line missing last season’s three best blockers.

Petrino is back, and he hardly skipped a beat from the days when he averaged 10 wins over four years at Louisville almost a decade ago. Now that the Cardinals have won nine in the ACC and sent 10 to the NFL, it’s time to reload and narrow the gap on the Atlantic Division’s mighty gatekeepers. Petrino has only just begun to ascend in his second act with the Cards, and his second team will be real dangerous if the four-man quarterback competition spawns a young passing star.

What to watch for on offense: Bonnafon’s job to lose. Louisville has three experienced quarterbacks vying for the job, four when Will Gardner returns this summer from a 2014 ACL tear. But despite not yet getting a full-throated endorsement from the staff, sophomore Reggie Bonnafon was the best-looking Cardinal hurler in the spring. A year after starting five games as a true freshman, he’s noticeably bigger, stronger and faster. And there’s been more zip on his passes and confidence in his step. Bonnafon is also by far the best athlete of the quartet, essential in a year that Louisville could struggle to win at the line of scrimmage.

What to watch for on defense: Devonte’s final second chance. Former TCU—and JUCO—star Devonte Fields is an immense talent, with the pass rushing skills to flourish as an outside linebacker with the Cardinals. But a checkered past has made for an uncertain future. Louisville under Bobby Petrino is quickly becoming a place where troubled youths descend to rehabilitate their images and redirect their football life. If Fields makes the most of this opportunity, NFL scouts will flock to Papa John’s, and the Card linebacker corps will be among the nastiest in the FBS.

The team will be far better if… it gets a better handle on the ball. While the Cardinals only threw 10 interceptions in 13 games last year, they consistently treated the ball as if it was a greased pigskin. They coughed it up 25 times, losing 16 to rank 116th in the country. Conversely, the Cards were 120th in the country with four fumble recoveries, underscoring the program’s struggles with turnover margin in 2014. Louisville dropped heartbreakers to Virginia, Clemson and Florida State that might have gone the other way if ball security wasn’t such a problem.

The Schedule: The Cardinals get their chance to make a massive national statement right away with the showdown against Auburn in Atlanta to kick off the season. Win that, and it’s Game On.
– UofL will know where it stands in the ACC Atlantic world by mid-October, hosting Clemson on a Thursday night and going to Florida State on October 17th. Win those two, and book tickets for the ACC title game. Split, and the ACC title is still a possibility.
– There are two nice runs, with three home games in a row early on, and a stretch of three home games in four with the road game at Wake Forest.
– With Auburn first and Kentucky last – both away from Louisville – the Samford scrimmage is more than okay in the middle of the season. However …
– WATCH OUT FOR … Houston. The Cougars should be front and center in the American Athletic race, and they should be just dangerous enough to pose a major challenge considering the Cardinals play Auburn a week earlier and Clemson five days after.

Best offensive player: Junior RB Brandon Radcliff. No one has won the quarterback job yet. The O-line is rife with uncertainty. And Devante Parker leaves a massive hole at wide receiver. But, hey, the backfield is fine shape with Radcliff and his backups, L.J. Scott and Jeremy Smith. Radcliff was a very pleasant surprise for the Cardinals in 2014, despite logging at least 20 carries in only a pair of games. And the program is excited to see what’s next for their power back, who is borderline unstoppable in short-yardage situations and near the goal line.

Best defensive player: Senior DE Sheldon Rankins. Had Rankins scratched his NFL itch in January, he’d have been the eleventh Cardinal selected in the draft. Instead, he’s still in Louisville to spearhead a front seven that’s going to be a handful for opposing blockers. Rankins is versatile, a quintessential 3-4 end, with the power to defend the run and the burst to create mayhem behind the line. He, NT DeAngelo Brown and former Washington DE Pio Vatuvei will make it extremely tough for the opposition to run between the tackles in 2015.

Key players to a successful season: The quarterbacks. Whenever Bobby Petrino has had success during his career, he’s had a capable quarterback leading his offensive huddle. That might be the case this year, too, but the coach must first decide who among an eclectic quartet is most ready to pilot the offense in 2015. Sophomore Reggie Bonnafon would start if the season began today, but Will Gardner was good enough to get the nod in 2014 before suffering a season-ending knee injury on Nov. 8. The Cards need someone to provide the spark, because all four of last year’s All-ACC performers are now in the pros.

The season will be a success if … the Cardinals match last year’s nine wins. Last season served as proof that Louisville belongs in the ACC. Winning nine in back-to-back years will show that the program is ready to compete over the long haul. The schedule features some early landmines, such as the opener with Auburn and the perennial bouts with divisional foes Clemson and Florida State. But the back end doesn’t feature a single opponent that finished 2014 ranked, so the Cards should be cruising into their bowl game. Bobby Petrino has a long track record of effectively preparing his next wave of starters, and there’s ample talent to keep this team from veering off course.

Key game: Sept. 17 vs. Clemson. After going 0-3 versus ranked teams in 2014, the Clemson visit is Louisville’s best shot to make a statement this fall. The Auburn opener will be huge, but it’s in Atlanta against a more talented team. And Florida State will be played in Tallahassee this year. The Cards will get the Tigers at Papa John’s Stadium and on a Thursday night, when a large chunk of the country will be watching. The locals will be fired up to rattle a Clemson team that’ll have just two layups with Wofford and Appalachian State to get its rebuilt lines ready for this matchup.

2014 Fun Stats:
– Interceptions thrown: Louisville 10 – Opponents 26
– Fumbles lost: Louisville 16 – Opponents 4
– Red-zone touchdown%: Louisville 67% – Opponents 41%

Players You Need To Know

1. DE Sheldon Rankins, Sr.
Few players responded better to first-year coordinator Todd Grantham—and his 3-4 base—than Rankins did in 2014. The 6-2, 303-pound Georgian slid outside to end and flourished with a career-best 53 tackles, 13.5 stops for loss, two picks and a team-high eight sacks to earn Third Team All-ACC. Not only is Rankins one of the strongest players on the Cardinal roster, but he also has the quicks and the hand skills to beat his man into the pocket. Louisville is fortunate No. 98 didn’t turn pro early, which was a consideration last December.

2. LB Devonte Fields, Sr.
Risky? You bet. But if Fields can finally get his act together, Louisville may have landed the league’s best pure pass rusher. Before becoming an off-field liability that was jettisoned from TCU, Fields was the Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year … just a few months removed from high school. The 6-4, 245-pounder operated with uncommon burst and agility for a rookie, debuting with 53 tackles, 18.5 stops for loss, 10 sacks and two forced fumbles. After spending last year at Trinity Valley (Tex.) Community College, Fields could be an ideal replacement for Lorenzo Mauldin at end or outside linebacker.

3. LB Keith Kelsey, Jr.
Football is in the DNA of Kelsey. And it showed in his first full season as a starter, which ended with honorable mention All-ACC recognition. He just doesn’t make many mistakes, positioning himself to be around the ball as often as possible. Kelsey was around it plenty a year ago, finishing second on the team with 87 tackles, including seven stops for loss, six sacks and seven quarterback hurries. He’s a stout 6-1, 233-pounder from the middle, who reads plays well and does an underrated job of timing his blitzes.

4. LB James Burgess, Sr.
Moves like a safety. Hammers like a linebacker. The Cardinals are set at inside linebacker, in large part because Burgess has returned to school for his senior year. The 6-0, 229-pound Burgess has been a starter since midway through his rookie year, playing with a violent bent that intimidates opposing players. He explodes off the snap and plays with tremendous range, making 71 tackles, 10 stops for loss, three sacks, three picks, eight passes defended and six quarterback hurries. Failing to include Burgess on the 2014 all-league team was an oversight by ACC voters.

5. S Josh Harvey-Clemons, Jr.
Harvey-Clemons is a Cardinal, where he’s reuniting with his former Georgia defensive coordinator, Todd Grantham. Harvey-Clemons is—literally—an enormous talent. The 6-5, 230-pounder is ideally suited to play Grantham’s ‘Star’ position, a hybrid of a strong safety and an outside linebacker. But a spate of off-field problems short-circuited a career that was set to go airborne in Athens. As a sophomore, he was third on the team with 66 stops, 5.5 tackles for loss and three fumble recoveries, despite being suspended for two games. Harvey-Clemons is the heavy favorite to start for a Louisville D that lost both of its safeties to the NFL Draft.

6. RB Brandon Radcliff, Jr.
An afterthought when the 2014 season began, Radcliff evolved into the Cards’ best back, despite starting just five games. He wound up leading the team with 737 yards and a dozen touchdowns on 144 carries, going for more than 100 yards versus Syracuse, Wake Forest and Notre Dame. The 5-9, 214-pound Radcliff’s biggest strength is his ability to extend plays and earn yards after contact. When it looks as if the play is over, he’s bouncing off tacklers and spinning free for more real estate.

7. CB Shaq Wiggins, Jr.
Louisville is the newest landing strip for sidetracked careers. Bobby Petrino is turning the Cardinals into the preferred program for players to chart a new course. Wiggins, for example. The former four-star Georgia recruit sought a fresh start on a new campus after starting eight games and making 19 tackles, two interceptions and four pass breakups as a rookie in 2013. Wiggins excels in man-to-man coverage, which is especially poignant to a Card squad that lost corners Terell Floyd and Andrew Johnson to graduation, and all-star Charles Gaines to the NFL Draft.

8. WR James Quick, Jr.
Four of the five Cardinals who caught at least 25 balls last year are gone. The lone returner, Quick, now gets a chance from the slot to be one of the offense’s primary weapons in 2015. He was second on last year’s team in plays of at least 20 yards, catching 36 passes for 566 yards and three touchdowns. The 6-1, 191-pound Quick shows agile and slippery tendencies, but now he’ll have to get open without a veteran corps of receivers commanding attention in the secondary.

9. NT DeAngelo Brown, Sr.
Brown was one of the unsung heroes of a defense that ranked No. 10 nationally against the run. He’s never going to amass the numbers of his other teammates in the front seven. But he will occupy multiple opposing blockers so that those same teammates can reach the man with the ball. Brown, who’s trimmed down to 6-0 and 319 pounds this offseason, made 20 stops and two tackles for loss in last season’s return from a season-ending Achilles injury.

10. LB Keith Brown, Jr.
Defensive coordinator Todd Grantham wants to get his 11 best players on the field. Brown is one of those Cardinals, so he’s being relocated from inside to strongside where an opportunity awaits. After exploding out of the gate as a rookie in 2012, he’s had a tough couple of years, tearing his ACL in 2013 and failing to win a job last fall. But Brown is a 6-1, 237-pound thumper coming off a sound spring. If he can bounce back from another surgery, this time for a sports hernia, he’ll serve reminders why he was such a coveted recruit out of Miami three years ago.

Head Coach: Bobby Petrino
6th Year (2003-2006): 50-13
11th year overall: 92-34

Sept. 5

Auburn (in Atlanta)
Sept. 12 Houston
Sept. 17 Clemson
Sept. 26 Samford
Oct. 3 at NC State
Oct. 17 at Florida State
Oct. 24 Boston College
Oct. 30 at Wake Forest
Nov. 7 Syracuse
Nov. 14 Virginia
Nov. 21 at Pitt
Nov. 28 at Kentucky
Ten Best UofL Players
1. DE Sheldon Rankins, Sr.
2. LB Devonte Fields, Sr.
3. LB Keith Kelsey, Jr.
4. LB James Burgess, Sr.
5. S Josh Harvey-Clemons, Jr.
6. RB Brandon Radcliff, Jr.
7. CB Shaq Wiggins, Jr.
8. WR James Quick, Jr.
9. NT DeAngelo Brown, Sr.
10. LB Keith Brown, Jr.