Sports Look

Ready to Roll

Predictions for UofL Football this season

By Jeff Nunn

Photos courtesy of University of Louisville Athletics

On Sept. 1 in Orlando, Florida, the Louisville Cardinals will begin their 100th football season as they take on the Alabama Crimson Tide. It’s never ideal to start your season off playing the defending national champions. To make matters worse, Louisville will attempt to pull off the upset while trying to replace Heisman trophy-winning quarterback Lamar Jackson, replacing seven starters on defense – including two of their top tacklers from last season – and implementing a new defense, as they have their third defensive coordinator in three years.

This team definitely has challenges in front of them, yet they look at them as opportunities. There is absolutely no question this year’s version of the Cardinals are ready to get out on the field and prove to everyone that their youth and inexperience will not prevent them from having a great season. Their attitude is positive and it’s contagious.

Jonathan Greenard

Louisville is coming off one of the most prolific offensive seasons ever, so naturally you should expect a drop-off. Well, maybe not as much as you would think. The scoring may not decrease but you won’t see as many flashy highlight plays. Led by redshirt sophomore quarterback Jawon Pass, Louisville should continue to be one of the top offenses in the country. Jawon is a dual-threat quarterback who is best described as a player who isn’t necessarily a running quarterback but can easily get you 10 yards if needed.

Jawon will have an embarrassment of riches to throw the ball to. Louisville has one of the deepest and most talented groups of receivers in the country. The “Big Three” receivers include Jaylen Smith, who flirted with entering the NFL draft before deciding to return for his senior year; sophomore Dez Fitzpatrick, who is primed for a monster year after setting the Louisville freshman touchdown record with nine last season; and junior Seth Dawkins, who is as steady as they come and a big play threat on every snap.

Since about 2010, Louisville consistently ranked in the top 25 in total defense, but last season they finished a disappointing 62nd, giving up a whopping 388.1 yards per game. The defense is again the biggest question and the key to the season. New defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder – who coached in the NFL as well as at Notre Dame, Georgia, Auburn and other schools – looks to get the Cards defense back to a reputable level.

Jawon Pass prepares to throw at the 2017 Red -White Spring Game.

The wise-guys in Las Vegas have set the win total for Louisville at 6.5. My opinion is that they are weighing the loss of Lamar Jackson a bit too heavily. The Cards will most likely lose to Alabama and Clemson and beat Indiana State and Western Kentucky. The remaining eight games are all going to be close battles. Louisville is somewhere between a six-win team and a 10-win team. It all comes down to the defense. I feel confident that Louisville wins eight games but wouldn’t be shocked if they finish at 9-3. VT

Who Will Hand Off to Benny Snell?

Another SEC football season, another huddle full of questions for Big Blue Nation.

By Steve Kaufman

Photos courtesy of University of Kentucky Athletics

So here we go again. University of Kentucky football, the Rodney Dangerfield of the SEC, don’t get no respect.

It’s true that Alabama would laugh at the Wildcats’ recent “accomplishments” – two straight seven-win seasons and two straight bowl appearances. For long-suffering Kentucky football, it’s all part of longer-range expectations.

Tavin Richardson.

Terry Wilson.

But leading where? In the sixth season of the Mark Stoops Era, should Big Blue Nation expect one small step? Or a giant leap? Or a step backwards?

On the one hand, the Cats are loaded with experience – on the big offensive line and in the defensive backfield. They have the SEC’s leading rusher returning. They have some enticing returnees, like the triple-threat Lynn Bowden; the All-American candidate Josh Allen; and the torpedo of energy Kash Daniel, who looks like he’ll play a big role on the linebacking crew.

Also back is senior safety Mike Edwards, who received so many accolades after his junior year.

Wideout Dorian Baker is back after missing last year with an injury. He’s a senior now and should be more focused and reliable than the promising young colt of a couple of years ago. The dream corner team of Derek Baity and Chris Westry is back, too. They didn’t miss last season – not with injuries, anyhow – but neither did they live up to the hype they were seemingly poised to earn. In fact, with free safety Darius West, it’s a full package of seniors back there.

Tight end C.J. Conrad is being talked about in the all-SEC – even All-American – conversation. And his replacement last year, Justin Rigg, looks like he could start for a lot of the conference’s teams. But both have a history of injuries. Healthy? We all know what a good tight end brings to the offense. Not healthy? A great big question mark in UK’s game plan.

There’s also a promising crew of wide receivers coming back – Tavin Richardson, Josh Ali, Isaiah Epps and Clevan Thomas, as well as Bowden. And a ton of good-looking freshmen receivers. But freshmen, as we know, equal questions.

There are other questions, as well. Kentucky will have to replace Austin MacGinnis, perhaps the greatest placekicker in UK history. Freshman Chance Poore and senior Miles Butler are competing for the kicking tee. Also a whole new Australian rugby-style punter. Matt Panten didn’t hurt the team at all last year, but he’s gone. Say “g’day, mate” to Max Duffy.

Senior linebacker Jordan Jones – the breakout star of 2016 turned problem child of 2017 – is back. But which Jones will show up? Hopefully not the one who imploded against Louisville last November. Plus, speaking of the LBs, they’re unexpectedly going to have to find replacements for Denzil Ware (transferred) and Josh Paschal (ill).

More questions? Oh, yeah, the one everyone in BBN is talking about except the coaches: Who will hand the ball off to Benny Snell? The QB job has to be much more than that, of course, and three completely inexperienced candidates are vying for the job. The winner will carve out the offense on his own terms.

In one corner, JC-transfer Terry Wilson, a Stephen Johnson-like dual threat but a stronger passer – and perhaps a better runner, as well. In the other corner, Gunnar Hoak, a classic drop-back pocket QB. (In the third corner is Danny Clark, the Massillon, Ohio, lefty whose recruitment sent tremors through BBN just two years ago.)

However any of them can or cannot run, taking the next step up will depend on which of the three throws the best, the deepest, the most accurately and the most dependably, something that was sorely missed the last two seasons.

Still, those were bowl-game seasons. Parting the Red Sea and reaching the Promised Land might well depend on which quarterback is handed the scrolls. VT

Culture Shock

How Indiana University Football can achieve more

By Jim Biery

Photos courtesy of Indiana University Athletics

What is culture shock? By definition, it is the feeling of disorientation experienced by someone who is suddenly subjected to an unfamiliar culture, way of life or set of attitudes.

I would say this applies to Indiana football, especially the part about an unfamiliar culture and set of attitudes. You see, the culture and attitude of the team desperately need to change. For far too long, the way of life for this team is to play sub-500 win/loss football.

In the last five seasons, the Hoosiers have a combined record of 26-35. They haven’t had a winning season since 2007. It also doesn’t help that they lost to That Team Up North (Purdue) to fail and qualify for a bowl game.

Yes, I believe a culture shock would be a really, really good thing for the program and for its loyal fan base.

In order to create a change of culture, you need to start at the very core of the team. Each and every player must improve individually so the whole team becomes better. This is possible. Actually, the blueprint has already been shown to be effective; Purdue proved that last year. With basically the same returning players, they were able to not only make a bowl, but they won it.

The key is to make each player believe they are better than they are each and every day. The person in charge of this is Head Football Coach Tom Allen. He will start his second full season this year and understands that in order to complete his contractual obligations until 2022, the winning must start now.

But it won’t be easy. This year’s schedule will be difficult to say the least. Then again, any time you play in the Big 10, it will always be hard. The Hoosiers play Ohio State and Michigan on the road. They last beat the Buckeyes in 1988. Home games include games against Michigan State, Penn State and the season ending annual battle for the Old Oaken Bucket.

The Spartans are perennial contenders for the Big 10 title, and Penn State is 20-1 all time against IU. The rest of the schedule offers hope, however. Virginia, Ball State, Iowa, Maryland, Florida International University and Rutgers are all winnable games. Three of last year’s games came down to a touchdown or less of winning, including an overtime loss to the Wolverines.

The change of culture may have already begun. Wide receiver Nick Westbrook returns from a torn ACL last year and hopes to return to the form that made him an All-Big 10 Honorable Mention in 2016. He recently was added to the Fred Biletnikoff Watch List for the best WR in the nation.

IU also will have the services of Arizona transfer Brandon Dawkins to compete for the quarterback position. Recruiting got a big boost by landing QB Michael Penix Jr., who chose Indiana over schools such as Tennessee, Arizona, Oregon and even Florida State.

My prediction for this year’s team and what might kickstart the culture change would be a six-win season and possibly seven, that is if they can reclaim the Old Oaken Bucket from That Team Up North. VT