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Summer Preview Series: Q&A on Louisville Football

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Kentucky v Louisville Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images

With summer in full swing we are taking a look at where Clemson’s P5 opponents stand for the 2019 season. Over the summer we’ll be conducting Q&As with the SB Nation sites for opposing teams as well as providing our own scouting reports. We continue with the Tigers’ seventh opponent of the season: the Louisville Cardinals. CardinalStrong of Card Chronicle was kind enough to join us to share his thoughts about the Cardinals and the new Scott Satterfield regime. You can give him a Twitter follow here.

STS: After last season’s ugly end to the second Bobby Petrino era, in which Louisville finished with just two wins overall and none in conference play, Scott Satterfield was brought in from Appalachian State to be the team’s new head coach. With seemingly nowhere to go but up from last season, what are your expectations for what he can have this team achieve in his first year?

CC: Way to come out of the gate hot, Tom. This is probably one of the more challenging questions of the offseason for coaches, players, and fans like myself. Do we look at the last decade-plus of success and think “we have a good amount of talent that was just severely underutilized,” or do we look at 2018 as a crash-and-burn season that will take years to recover from? The opinions on how to gauge success this year are about as widespread as the takes on Trevor Lawrence’s hair, but nowhere near as shiny or full of bounce.

Allow me to digress, briefly. Louisville knew exactly what it was getting into when it rehired Bobby Petrino back in 2014: a coach who wouldn’t bring much positive attention from the media, a coach who didn’t have the best reputation on or off the field, but a coach who could win games and keep Louisville relevant as it took a big step into the ACC. He did all those things flawlessly, until last year; he had a top-5 national ranking during the 2016 season, tied for first in the ACC Atlantic that year, and brought in a Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback. He also ticked off media, ticked off coaches, and often just could not seem to get out of his own way. I for one trusted Petrino when he said he was ready to come back to Louisville and stay here for as long as he could, but I didn’t know if that was good or bad.

The reason we never saw “fifth-year Bobby” at many places was because he was a perpetual job chaser, but what many forgot is that Bobby himself never saw “fifth-year Bobby” either, and as the months passed since he was let go it appears as if he forgot around the start of year four of his second stint here that in college football, you have to continue building a team for seasons to come. My man was playing career mode on NCAA Football and thought he only needed to put in a solid four years or something. Team chemistry and roster management were not the lone reasons for the collapse of 2018, but they certainly did not help, and have left Scott Satterfield with a mess to clean up moving forward.

I threw up a poll back in May over at Card Chronicle asking fans what their expectations were heading into the summer. The majority of the fan base (38%) said 4-8, followed closely (28%) by 5-7. If I had to describe the discussions I have with folks online, my friends, or even my family, one word comes to mind: realistic. After getting continuous beatings last year I think Louisville football fans are just looking for an improved attitude and effort. If that only translates to three or four wins, so be it, but most of us realize this isn’t a one-year turnaround. We’re not trying to be Clemson in year three; we’re just trying to get back to the Louisville football we fell in love with the last 20 years. If Satterfield can get this team to four wins, recruit well, and show signs of building a new culture within the program, go ahead and name him Grand Marshall of the Kentucky Derby Pegasus Parade next year. If he can get this squad bowling in year one…pencil him in for mayor in 2020.

STS: Overall, how did Louisville’s spring practice go? Were there any notable injuries and/or did anyone stand out in a positive way?

CC: That’s cute how you all like to play football in the spring. Around here, under Mr. Satterfield’s watch, we play football like grown men...in February.

One of the annual college football traditions known as the “Spring Game” has gotten a swift “Thanks, but no thanks” from Satterfield and his staff for many years now, dating back to his time at Appalachian State. While it was a bit of a head-scratcher for some of the fans, this season at least I thought it made sense. Satterfield opted to start practice back on Feb. 11 and closed up shop on March 7. That early start allowed for two big things: 1) getting the players focused on moving forward and forgetting about last year’s debacle as quickly as possible, and 2) allowing the staff to fully evaluate talent for their new system as soon as possible so they could hit the recruiting trail fast. While the freezing temps and slight drizzle on March 7 didn’t draw a big crowd, they seemed to accomplish the goals of getting buy-in from the players, and identifying where they needed to go get guys on the JUCO level or on the transfer portal.

Overall, Louisville made it out the spring pretty clean on the injury front, with a few guys nursing some minor things, but no one is projected to be out into fall camp. One thing about the Cardinals is that they are pretty young overall and return more experience in terms of starts and lettermen than any team in the ACC this year. Whether that’s good or bad is yet to be seen, but without question there is a lot of talent with some pretty big chips on their shoulders for 2019.

Central Arkansas v Louisville Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images

STS: Louisville’s most glaring high-level weakness last season was its defense, which ranked 122nd out of 130 FBS teams in yards allowed per game (484), and 128th in points allowed per game (44.1!). Things can’t get much worse, but with a new defensive staff replacing Brian VanGorder, how quickly and to what extent do you expect to see improvement on this side of the ball?

CC: On a personal note, this stings the most for me. I know the average STS reader could give two Gamecocks about the history of the Louisville defense, but the Cards had been putting out some pretty solid performers on that side of the ball for nearly 10 years. Omitting the last two seasons, since 2010, Louisville had never finished outside of the top 25 nationally in total defense, including 2013 when they finished first in the country, and 2014 when they finished sixth. Charlie Strong got the ball rolling while he was here, but Petrino made a good hire in Todd Grantham when he came back to Louisville, and Grantham had the boys playing some solid defensive football. They were getting to the quarterback, they were forcing turnovers, and to reference your stat above, at their worst, they allowed 24.1 points per game, nearly 20 POINTS LOWER than what they gifted last year.

Coach Satterfield, in hopes to stop the bleeding, brought along his defensive coordinator from Appalachian State, Bryan Brown. Mixing it up from what Cards fans have seen the last few years in Peter Sirmon (I just threw up in my mouth a little) and Brian VanGorder (OK, now I threw up) Brown runs a somewhat typical 3-4 scheme, using one of the outside backers to “float” on and off the line, play coverage, etc.—very similar to the “Star” position Grantham ran a few seasons ago here in town.

While I honestly believe Louisville has the athletes starting on that side of the ball right now to compete with every team on their schedule the problem very quickly becomes depth. When you start sniffing around the two-deep you see pretty fast that Petrino would have much rather grabbed a 27th wide receiver than a backup corner, or an interior lineman. Only because I said something very similar after 2017 I’m clenching up a bit writing this but…can it really get worse? For those who enjoy partaking in the misery of others, I did a season-long statistical breakdown here that you’re free to go back and peek at. As an outsider such as you, Tom, who already thinks it was bad, it was actually much, much, [shudders] much, worse.

STS: Moving to offense, the Cardinals have a couple of quarterbacks who saw a decent amount of playing time last season, in Jawon Pass (the primary starter) and Malik Cunningham. Do you see Cunningham—who seems to be the more rushing-inclined of the two—playing an elevated role this season?

CC: Yes. I do think Cunningham will have a more elevated role, but the caveat is that it may not be at quarterback. Since Satterfield has arrived he and the staff have hemmed, hawed, and aw-shucks’d us to death regarding the QB spot, but the writing on the wall seems to be pointing to Jawon “Puma” Pass as the man to run their offense. In the first official unofficial depth chart from last week, we still saw the dreaded “OR” next to the quarterback line, but I think that was purely to drive competition into the fall. Puma ran a very similar offense to that of Satterfield’s in high school, and if we’re being honest, taking on any new offense after trying to digest a Petrino playbook has to be a breath of fresh air. Satterfield has discussed getting Malik on the field in one way or another if he doesn’t land as the starter, which leads me to believe that thought process has already been played out in his head. I wouldn’t be surprised to see Cunningham in some type of Percy Harvin role this year if the QB reps aren’t there. Everyone needs a, “This guy is super shifty, super fast, and needs to get the ball somehow” type of athlete. He is that guy.

STS: Looking ahead to the Oct. 19 home game against Clemson, the Tigers should enter with an explosive offense, but there are some question marks about a defense that will feature plenty of new faces. In what way(s) do you think Louisville can give Clemson the most trouble? With the caveat that we are still several months out from this contest, what are your initial high-level thoughts as far as how this one might go?

CC: Probably not gonna be pretty for Cards fans. The defensive deficiencies you mentioned for Clemson are all relative in terms of losing multiple starters to the NFL and replacing them with “unproven” 4- and 5-star kids. Yes, those are question marks, but we’re on a whole other level right now in this program with our questions that have yet to be answered. Let me be clear: I think Louisville can hang around for a while and turn it into a three-quarter game with some breaks, but I would rather have this as an early-season contest like we saw for a few years in a row (around Game 3) than a late season matchup, eight weeks in. If the Cards come in relatively healthy, Satterfield has some offensive weapons that can be used in areas where Clemson has some “unproven” holes. While it sounds a little boisterous after a 2-10 season, I think the Cards have two “winnable” games in Boston College and Wake Forest before they come back home to take on presumably a top-2 Clemson team, and Uncle Mo can make you do some crazy things. If the line came out today I’d guess Clemson to be around a 27 to 30-point favorite, and that’s tough to argue. The fan in me says the Cards keep it within a couple TDs late and give up a big play to seal it in the fourth. Clemson 38 - Cards 17.

BTW, If you have a desire to see how Satterfield likes to attack the defense (spoiler alert: He likes to run the ball) I put together a quick analysis here, comparing his approach to Louisville over the past five seasons. Self pro-mo-tion [clap, clap, clapclapclap] Self pro-mo-tion [clap, clap, clapclapclap].

A big thank-you goes to CardinalStrong for answering our questions so thoroughly. You can give him a Twitter follow here.