Louisville Cardinals 2017 season preview, schedule, players to watch

By The Sports Xchange  |  Aug. 14, 2017 at 5:29 PM
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Louisville went 9-4 last season with a win over Florida State, and quarterback Lamar Jackson won the Heisman Trophy. And yet it didn't quite seem like enough.

The Cardinals ended up wishing for more because of the way last season finished -- three consecutive losses, including disappointing performances against rival Kentucky and the bowl stinker vs. LSU.

The good news? Jackson is back for his junior season, and a good number of talented players join him on both sides of the ball. Louisville figures to be an ACC contender again this season.

"We have high expectations for this team," Louisville coach Bobby Petrino said.

"I know our coaching staff does. I know our players do. Certainly our fans and our administration have high expectations for us, and this is a really tough conference. It's going to be very competitive. Every team that we play has really good players. Every team that we play is very, very well-coached, so we're going to have to do a great job of being in great condition, developing our depth, and being able to perform in the fourth quarter when the pressure is on.

"I think that's what you're going to see, a lot of fourth-quarter wins or fourth-quarter losses this year throughout the conference."

As noted, the "fourth quarter" of Louisville's 2016 season didn't go well. After the bowl, Petrino made some changes -- bringing in new defensive coordinator Peter Sirmon to simplify the scheme, offensive line coach Mike Summers from Florida and defensive backs coach Lorenzo Ward from South Carolina to help the Cardinals eliminate the big plays that plagued them in the final two weeks of the regular season.

Petrino and Co. will have to be ready quickly this season, with the first three weeks including Purdue then a road trip to North Carolina before a home-opening showdown with defending national champion Clemson.

MOST IMPORTANT PLAYER: QB Lamar Jackson -- With Jackson in the pocket for Year 3, Louisville figures to have the most-dangerous offense in the ACC and perhaps the nation. He finished 2016 with 3,542 passing yards and 30 touchdowns, also rushing for 1,571 yards and 21 scores. Jackson broke Michael Vick's ACC records last season while he was still figuring out Bobby Petrino's full offense. How good could he be this season? That will depend on how new offensive line coach Mike Summers reforms an offensive line that gave up 47 sacks last season.

BREAKOUT STAR: WR Jaylen Smith -- Louisville lost its top three receivers from 2016 -- wideouts James Quick and Jamari Staples and tight end Cole Hikutini. Stepping into the spotlight will be Smith, who has all the physical tools to be an elite wide receiver. He caught 27 passes for 599 yards and six touchdowns last season. Those numbers could double in 2017.

NEWCOMER TO WATCH: OL Mekhi Becton -- With offensive line being Louisville's biggest question mark after the 2016 season, Petrino signed the Cardinals' highest-ranked recruiting class ever on the lines, including this massive freshman. Becton is nearly 6-foot-8 and easily carries 345 pounds. "He reminds me of Jonathan Ogden, who I coached against in the NFL," coach Bobby Petrino said. "He's a massive individual and he doesn't have a lot of bad weight. He can really move with that frame." Becton could start Game 1 at tackle for Louisville.


RB Reggie Bonnafon, a senior who has also played wide receiver and quarterback for Louisville, is expected to be a key weapon in Lamar Jackson's backfield. Bonnafon is a physical freak with a 4.40 40-yard dash and a 43-inch vertical.


DE Trevon Young, an All-ACC talent at outside linebacker in 2015, is back from a gruesome hip injury that happened in the first half of Louisville's 2015 Music City Bowl win over Texas A&M. Young and fellow pass-rusher James Hearns figure to be a strong duo for the Cardinals.


DB Jaire Alexander is a preseason selection for All-ACC and he might be the best cornerback in a Louisville uniform since Sam Madison. Alexander had five interceptions and 39 tackles last season.


DL Drew Bailey will try to step into the shoes left behind by Saints first-round pick Sheldon Rankins and Tennessee Titans rookie DeAngelo Brown as Louisville's next star defensive lineman. Bailey says he wears 14 because he's "Channel 14 -- must-see TV."


WR Seth Dawkins averaged 17.4 yards per catch in 2016 and Bobby Petrino say he wants to work him into the lineup more this season. The 6-4 wideout reminds insiders of former first-round pick DeVante Parker, who is now with the Miami Dolphins.

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