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2015 Fierce 40 Previews: #20 Louisville

by DJ Boyer on Aug. 19, 2015

#20 Louisville Cardinals

2014 Recap:

A 9-4 record after a loss to Georgia in the Belk Bowl showed Louisville can compete in the ACC. Louisville is close to going from a second tier squad in the Conference to being among the favorites and one that could win a crown relatively soon. The Cardinals 42-31 loss to Florida State was hard to watch, as Louisville had a huge lead in the game they let slip away.

 

Coaching:

Bobby Petrino is a lightning rod for controversy, but his ability to be a head coach has never been questioned. While once being known for being an offensive-minded coach it has been the defense for Louisville that has opened eyes. Last season Louisville finished #6 overall in the nation in total defense a year after being #1. Gerrick McGee and Todd Grantham are the respective offensive and defensive coordinators.

 

Offensive Analysis

Quarterbacks/Running Backs:

You never want to bet against a Bobby Petrino offense and the quarterback that is running the show. Will Gardner was the starter for Louisville last season before he was derailed with a knee injury. Reggie Bonnafon stepped in as a freshman during the injury, and Kyle Bolin also saw time. All of these quarterbacks will be back in the fold, and plans to announce a starting quarterback has everyone holding their breath in Louisville. During the spring, Bonnafon was announced as the starter for the upcoming season. Petrino and his staff have since backtracked from those statements and have claimed they are “not in a hurry” to make a decision. From those close to the situation, this has more to do with the fact that all quarterbacks have looked very comfortable in the offense and not Bonnafon floundering in any way.

Despite who the quarterback is, the running back spot will be looked at hard with junior Brandon Radcliff returning. Radcliff hopped over Dominique Brown and Michael Dyer on the depth chart last year, and those two backs are in the NFL and very talented. In limited action as a starter and splitting time, Radcliff led the team with 737 yards and 12 touchdowns all while averaging a team high 5.1 YPC. The running attack is in good shape, as the offensive line has surpassed expectations on a regular basis in recent seasons.

Best Draft Prospect: Brandon Radcliff RB 5th Round 2017

 

Wide Receivers/Tight Ends:

Losing Devante Parker in the top half of the first round of the NFL Draft is obviously a loss, but it’s quite possible Louisville has another future first rounder on the roster. When you look at the statistics for James Quick you are not blown away with 36-566-3. Quick was one of the most sought after recruits in the nation when he left high school, and now he seems ready to ascend to stardom with Parker now in the NFL. With Parker missing a little time last season Quick had two games where he topped 100 yards receiving, and he works primarily in the slot. This is a new trend we are seeing in the NFL. Slot receivers are no longer just smaller possession type receivers. Players like Quick who are well over 6’0″ tall are slot specialists in the NFL, and this will help his draft stock.

Quick is not the only taller receiver on the roster. There are players who don;t have the numbers and are unproven but they are all tall and the group is deep. We may see a number of starting combinations on the outside, especially early in the season. Jamari Staples and Ja’Quay Savage seem to be the most likely starters, but Dontez Byrd and Javonte Bagley will contribute. Only Savage is a senior out of the five wide receivers just named. Look for tight end Keith Towbridge to become more involved in the passing game now that starter Gerald Christian has departed for life in the NFL.

Best Draft Prospect: James Quick WR 1st Round 2017 (early declaration candidate).

 

Offensive Line:

This could be the key to the offense, as Louisville seems to lack the star punch they have had in past seasons along the line. There are two returning starters, but Louisville has shown they are always deep along the line. Non-starters always receive a fair amount of game experience before moving into the starting lineup. Aaron Epps is back at left tackle after making six starts as a junior and appearing primarily on special teams as a sophomore. Epps has made a nice general progression through the depth chart, but there is still a little concern at such a key spot on the line like left tackle.

Tobijah Hughley returns at center while the other three spots will be new starters. Kelby Johnson has one year at Louisville under his belt after transferring from the junior ranks, and he will be the starting right tackle. One thing that can be said about Louisville linemen, they are huge. Both starting tackles are 6’7″, so leverage is the least of the Cardinal concerns. Again, there is plenty of depth along this line, but Louisville does not have proven starters to turn too. If the line struggles the cardinals may end up leaning on their defense even more then they have in years past.

Best Draft Prospect: Aaron Epps OT UFA 2016.

 

Defensive Analysis

Defensive Line:

Louisville will be employing three lineman up front again, as they have used a 3-4 front for most of their formations over the last five seasons. This is slowly turning into a 3-3-5 since we have seen so many players from the secondary drafted in recent years (more to come on that in the secondary section). Sheldon Rankins became the star last season, but the question is how much of his stats were based on talent, and how much was due to teams keying on Lorenzo Mauldin.

Rankins seems to have the talent for the NFL, and he could see his status soar, as he is one of these “tweeners”. This term used to refer exclusively to players that could play outside linebacker or defensive end in the NFL. Players like Rankins at 6’2″ 305 could be an interior pass rusher in the NFL as a defensive tackle or even a defensive end in a 3-4 setting. Rankins wound up surpassing Mauldin with 13.5 tackles for loss and eight sacks to go along with his 53 total tackles. Pio Vatuvei is more of a run stopper on the other side of the line, while tackle DeAngelo Brown looks like he is ready to emerge as the breakout performer for 2015.

Best Draft Prospect: Sheldon Rankins DE/DT 3rd Round 2016.

 

Linebackers:

Louisville has a pair of their starting linebackers back, as they move from a traditional 3-4 scheme to a 3-3-5. With the return of James Burgess and Keith Kelsey you have 158 tackles with eight sacks and three interceptions. This may be something a little different for the Cardinals, as the secondary has long been viewed as the strength of this team, but it should turn to the linebackers for 2015. With those wonderful numbers we just saw, it is the new starter and third linebacker that everyone will be watching and talking about.

Devonte Fields has been out of the public eye for some time after he was the Big 12 Defensive Player of the year as a freshman in 2012 at TCU. Fields had some legal issues including drinking and domestic violence. Fields resurfaced at Trinity Valley Community College and was ranked as the #2 JUCO recruit in the country.With the compliment of linebackers, Fields can concentrate on doing what he does best, creating havoc and getting to the quarterback. Fields is a favorite to win Newcomer of the Year in the ACC and could make national waves with his play.

Best Draft Prospect: Devonte Fields LB 3rd Round 2017 (early declaration candidate).

 

Secondary:

James Sample, Charles Gaines, and Gerald Holliman are all at the NFL level, as they were the leaders of a secondary that ranked #26 in the country last season. Holliman set an NCAA record with 14 interceptions but that total had as much to do with the relentless pass rush up front as it did with the coverage packages used by Louisville. Just like the linebacker position, Louisville has a new arrival that should have the ACC buzzing. Joshua Harvey-Clemons sat out a season after transferring from Georgia where he was a standout strong safety. To say Harvey-Clemons is a strong safety is an understatement. Moving from a 3-4 to a 3-3-5 will be easier with Clemons who is 6’4″ and 230 pounds. During 2013 Harvey-Clemons registered 66 tackles and forced three fumbles as a member of the Georgia Bulldogs.

Shaq Wiggins and Trumaine Washington will be the corners, and Washington has valuable experience and both are on the small side at 5’10”. Jermaine Reve will play the nickel back position but may switch at times with Harvey-Clemons or Chucky Williams who stands to be the other starting safety. Williams is a redshirt sophomore that the cardinals are excited about after he appeared mainly on special teams only as a freshman.

Best Draft Prospect: Joshua Harvey-Clemons S 3rd Round 2016.

 

Special Teams

John Wallace is one of those kickers that could attract enough attention to actually be drafted and not come into camp as an undrafted free agent. The senior was 15-19 a year ago, but he has one of the strongest legs at the NCAA level. Josh Appleby should be the starting punter, and he did get to launch six during games last season after he was the backup to Ryan Johnson. James Quick and Brandon Radcliff continue to be dangerous return options. With increased roles in the offense this season, we will see if Louisville starts to go with a new face in the return game.

Best Draft Prospect: John Wallace K 7th Round 2015.

 

2015 Schedule

Louisville will be considerable underdogs in their opener against Alabama, and this year they have to travel to Tallahassee to face the Seminoles. The game against Clemson on September 17th could set the stage for whether the Cardinals are contenders or pretenders for the upcoming season.

 

Draft Outlook & Analysis

Sheldon Rankins could turn out to be the big winner here for Louisville as he emerges from Lorenzo Mauldin’s shadow. The Devonte Fields situation will be interesting to monitor. If Fields is anywhere near his freshman season at TCU, he will be a high pick and maybe even forgo his senior season and leave for the NFL. Josh-Harvey Clemons is another player transferring from a different school who has shown he belongs in the NFL. Lousiville has thrown more propsects into the NFL then many realize, and they will continue to be a factory for players moving to the next level as they move into the upper echelon of the ACC sooner rather than later.