College football is back in Louisville. Sort of.
On Monday, the UofL football team held its first official practice of the 2017 season, which also served as the only fall camp practice that will be open to fans. Though you won’t be permitted to watch the boys duke it out off Floyd Street for the rest of the month, you can still catch a number of practice reports (and catch wind of the rumors and gossip) that will be floating around for the next four weeks.
With practice now in full swing, here are the three things Cardinal fans should be paying the most attention to between now and the season-opener on September 2.
1. Who will emerge as running back?
Lamar Jackson set ACC records for both rushing yards and touchdowns by a quarterback in 2017. Neither of those achievements would have been possible without a running back next to him that made opposing defenses respect Jackson’s fake hand-offs on read option plays. That back was Bradndon Radcliff, who averaged a whopping 6.5 yards per carry and neatly became the first Louisville running back to rush for over 1,000 yards since Bilal Powell in 2010. Radcliff is gone, and now one of the primary issues for Bobby Petrino is finding another back who opposing defenses will be forced to respect in the same way.
The most likely candidate throughout the offseason to replace Radcliff has been senior Jeremy Smith. The California native has seen significant action in each of the past two seasons, and averaged 6.7 yards per carry in 2016. Smith, however, has also shown a troubling propensity for fumbling, and is known as more of a power back than the explosive type of player who makes the read option work.
The man currently on top of the depth chart at running back is one who has never played the position full-time. Reggie Bonnafon came to Louisville as a quarterback, earned a starting job at the position as a freshman, learned new positions on the fly as a sophomore, and then moved to wide receiver as a junior. Now he’s focused completely on being a running back, a spot where Petrino hopes he can get the ball into the hands of one of his most dynamic athletes more frequently. It’s exciting to think of an athletic freak like Bonnafon serving as Louisville’s every down back. It’s also a little worrisome to think about that role going to a guy who’s never played the position full-time before.
Senior Malik Williams, sophomore Trey Smith and freshman Colin Wilson should also figure into the position battle, which will be the most interesting to follow all August.
2. Is the offensive line going to be better?
Louisville led the nation in scoring offense last season, but the unit’s production dipped off dramatically in the second half of the year. The biggest reason for that was poor play from the offensive line, which was especially noticeable in the team’s one-sided losses to Houston in the penultimate game of the regular season and LSU in the Citrus Bowl.
Three of the starters from that offensive line are gone, which is good news when you think about how poorly they performed at the end of the season, but bad news when you remember that the other linemen on last year’s roster couldn’t beat those guys out for playing time. Louisville fans hoping for a stronger performance up front will put their faith in Mike Summers. The offensive line coach who enjoyed so much success under Bobby Petrino in Petrino’s first stint at UofL is now back for round two. Summers has a trio of experienced players in Geron Christian, Lukayus McNeil and Kenny Thomas, but it will be on him to find the other pieces that fit from amongst the hoard of unproven and youthful talent at his disposal.
3. What does Lamar Jackson have in store for Act III?
It has been an extremely rare occurrence in any era for college football to have a reigning Heisman Trophy participating in the sport. It’s still almost unfathomable that it’s the Louisville Cardinals that get to enjoy the phenomenon for the next four months.
Jackson put up unheard of numbers as a sophomore in 2016 and entertained the entire country while he was doing it. How much better can he be as a junior? Will he try too hard to impress NFL scouts? Is he really going to play that much more under center? These are all questions that can’t possibly be answered before September 2, but that won’t stop any of us from following along with the practice reports to try and get some hints. VT