Louisville got handed a sobering loss to cap off the disappointing end to their 2016 season with a 29-9 defeat to LSU in the Citrus Bowl. The end of the season has spawned a plethora of finger pointing and in some cases name calling, letting everyone know who the children are among the fans. And while there is blame to be shared, it is not just one persons fault. There are levels to everything, and right now, the football program is broken. Not irreparably, but broken nonetheless.
So where do we go from here, both as fans and as a program? I broke it into sections, and I’m no coach or athletic director, but I do think this is the most sensible and efficient way to approach 2017 in a much better standing.
Obviously you’re coming off a Heisman-winning season from Lamar, but he has a lot to work on. His accuracy, especially on the short and mid-range passes, as well as the fumbles must improve. Additionally, Bobby needs to let Lamar be Lamar. He was always most competent when Bobby let him run more of the read option and take off when he wants, instead of trying to force him to be a pocket passer. I understand trying to develop him for the pros, I’m just talking in terms of a successful season for the University of Louisville. Secondly, Jawon Pass or Malik Cunningham, whoever wins the backup job, needs to develop and get some time early in the season. Lamar had an incredible run of health this year given how many times he was hit, and depth behind him will be crucial from the young players. I also believe Kyle Bolin may transfer. I don’t see the point in making him the backup with Pass and Cunningham coming in, so it depends on how much he wants to play.
There is a big step down here. Brandon Radcliffe, Malin Jones, and fullback Lamar Atkins all graduate, with LJ Scott transferring. That leaves Jeremy Smith, a lot of unproven talent, and incoming freshman Colin Wilson (4*). That leaves a lot to be desired, especially assuming the offensive line does not drastically improve. I’d like to see more straight runs from the backfield, but outside of that, it’s largely the Lamar show in the backfield for next season anyway.
Overall, the quantity of losses here isn’t that high, but the loss in quality is huge. Cole Hikutini, Keith Towbridge, Jamari Staples and James Quick are all huge contributors on the offense right now and will be tough to replace. Look for Traveon Samuel, Seth Dawkins, Jaylen Smith and Dez Fitzpatrick to more than fill the gaps at wide receiver. Charles Standberry and Micky Crum are the frontrunners to fill in at tight end. Overall, I’m not too worried about the talent here, but I am really high on Micky Crum for next season.
Oh boy. So they lose Tobijah Hughley and Khalil Hunter, and possibly Lukayus McNeil. McNeil made mention before the season that he would see where he was as a prospect after the season. His brother is his dependent so he wants to jump to the league as quickly as possible, however based on his performance this season, I don’t think he will be a high prospect in the NFL. So assuming they bring McNeil back, that leaves Kiola Mahoni and Geron Christian as the remaining returning starters. Overall, I felt like Christian had a decent year, certainly better than any of his line mates, and he is still young. I’d like to see Ronald Rudd (JUCO), Cole Bentley (3*) and Robbie Bell (redshirt Fr) push for starting positions on the line. I do think, depending on how those three develop, that the offensive line will be largely improved next season.
The only senior of note is DeAngelo Brown, which is a huge, and I mean HUGE loss for us up front, especially in Grantham’s defensive scheme. They also stand to lose James Hearns if he chooses to go to the NFL. Those would be two huge loses, but they are fairly deep on the defensive line. Kyle Shortridge and GG Robinson are both talented enough to take over for Brown, even with it being a drop off. On the ends, Drew Bailey, Chris Williams and De’Asian Richardson all played well this season and should stabilize the outside should Hearns jump.
I had very little complaints about our linebackers this season. Keith Kelsey was a rock in the middle, with Devonte Fields, Stacey Thomas and Jonathan Greenard all performing well around him. Unfortunately, there’s a very real possibility that they lose Thomas in addition to the graduating Fields and Kelsey. If that is so, Greenard, along with up-and-comer Amonte Caban, transfer Gary McCrae and a returning Trevon Young could be the top names to fill those big shoes.
This is probably the group I’m least excited for next season. They definitely lose Josh Harvey-Clemons, and Shaq Wiggins and Chucky Williams aren’t locks to come back. We saw how the defense looked in the bowl game without some of these guys, and that’s what gives me pause for next season. They would obviously have all offseason to work with the guys, but the coaching staff should be looking to define the starters as quickly as possible. Lucky for them, incoming stud CJ Avery (4*) will be on campus in about a week, and players like Jaire Alexander, Zykiesis Cannon, Khane Pass and Dee Smith all were generally strong performers this season. It will be interesting to see who comes out of this group come September.
Mason King and Blanton Creque were, in my opinion, really strong performers this year. King might be the best punter to come through the program since Wade Tydlacka and Creque was very solid once given the starting job. Not worried about this area for next year.
Ultimately, I think that next season is obviously predicated on better coaching. The offense sputtered every time they got into the red zone and I think there are some minor play calling issues to correct. Bobby of old is dead and gone, and isn’t coming back. The ballsy 4th down calls and opportunities to step on the opponents throat are gone as well. So the offense has to become crisp, efficient and exact. On defense, Grantham has done a phenomenal job given the amount of bad situations the offense put them in this season. He, however, needs to be more cognizant of his talent. I know his defensive scheme involves blitzing early and often, but when 3/4 of your secondary is replacements, you can’t be that aggressive. A few minor tweaks here should do the trick.
And lastly, the fan base has to evolve. The constant whining and panicking every time something goes wrong has to stop. Louisville is on the cusp of consistent elite status, both in basketball and football. Not there yet, but knocking on the door. So it’s time the fans act like it. When Stephen Johnson drops a bomb to start the game and the entire stadium panics, the players sense that. It sounds dumb, but evolving as fans to expect greatness while not overreacting to a slight step back is a crucial part of this process. Louisville could be in its third straight national title game, but if Malik Cunningham throws a pick six to start the game, and the entire fan base loses its mind, that’s a recipe for disaster.
So be proud of what was accomplished this season. The first Heisman trophy in school history, the first College Gameday in school history and being ranked in the top 5 are no small accomplishments. But continue to aim higher and 2017 can be the Year of the Cardinal Pt. Deux.