While there’s still a large gap between Clemson and the next best team in the ACC, Louisville is working on closing it. Coach Scott Satterfield is off to a quick start getting things on the right track in Louisville and as a result the Cardinals appear to be Clemson’s biggest obstacle to winning their sixth straight ACC Atlantic division title. To learn more about the resurgent Cardinals, we connected with CardinaIStrong of the Card Chronicle.
STS: The ACC became so utterly boring last season that Clemson fans may have missed out on how great some of Louisville’s emerging offensive stars were. Micale Cunningham proved to be a dangerous dual-threat with a 22-5 TD-INT ratio and 482 rushing yards. He was only a sophomore. Should we expect him to be one of the top 3 QBs in the league this year?
CC: Short answer, yes. But frankly Ryan, I just don’t do short answers, and the fine upstanding ladies and gentleman here on this site just crave more football information during the doldrums of summer and COVID isolation. I’ll put on my mask, you rub your rock, and we’ll give the people what they want.
Micale (who used to be Malik) Cunningham played incredibly well last year for a guy who wasn’t the Game 1 starter and who really only got reps due to a Jawon Pass injury, as Pass was playing fine a game and a half into the season. Now, Ryan, we’re in a full blown Wally Pipp 2.0 situation in Louisville because Cunningham ain’t giving that job back. I broke down some offensive stats last year after the season and Cunningham’s numbers were pretty amazing. The young man fell one pass (yes, ONE pass) short of qualifying for a lot of the national rankings, but I did him the favor of including him in those rankings anyway because, to be blunt, I’m just a super nice guy.
He finished 2019 with a QBR of 194.44 which would have put him at #2 nationally, along with a respectable 62.6% completion percentage. His TD-INT ratio you mentioned above shows he can protect the ball and while I want to avoid comparisons with Lamar Jackson, he can certainly use his legs to get out of jams with a touch over 480 rushing yards and 6 rushing TDs last season. My two big takeaways though...he would have finished #1 in the nation in yards per attempt (11.4yd) and #1 in the nation in yards per attempt under pressure (9.7yds) if he had qualified. He can air it out and he has some weapons at wideout to help him.
STS: At WR, Louisville returns Tutu Atwell, who led the ACC with receiving yards per game and got better as the year went on. What does he bring to the WR position? With Virginia’s Joe Reed and Clemson’s Tee Higgins off to the NFL, is Atwell the ACC’s top receiver?
CC: I can try and offer you an unbiased opinion, but really if you look at other unbiased sources out there most of them, if not all, agree that Tutu is the best in the conference right now. I really like Sage Surratt at Wake and Dazz Newsome at UNC but Tutu is going to be that guy in 2020. I wont answer another question with a bunch of stats because folks may start to doze off like we’re watching South Carolina’s offense, but I think it’s important to note that Tutu graded out as the best wideout in the ACC last season and the best 3rd down wideout in the country per Pro Football Focus. He finished #1 in the nation with 12 TDs out of the slot, and finished 2nd in the country in extending plays 10 yards or more after the catch. His athleticism is off the charts, but his speed is just filthy. I know you guys were busy winning another ACC title and playing in your little playoff and stuff, but go type in Tutu Atwell on YouTube and prepare to see some really incredible plays from last year.
STS: The other star that really burst onto the scene for Lousiville’s offense was RB Javian Hawkins. He was asked to carry the ball a ridiculous 264 times and finished second in the conference to Travis Etienne with 1,525 rushing yards. How much of Louisville’s offense will revolve around rising junior Javian Hawkins next season?
CC: Quite a bit honestly. When I ran the numbers last year, the Cards had a 65/35 split between rushing attempts and passing attempts, which is a bit high in my opinion, I mean, this ain’t Navy, but when you look at the total yardage things are actually pretty balanced between the two, meaning Satterfield likes to lull you to sleep with the run then hit you with a 20 yard post as you creep up. Hawkins was a workhorse last year whose stats may be slightly inflated due to the sheer number of times he toted the rock, but make no mistake, he is another top player in the conference and nationally at his position. His 5.78yd/att was Top 5 in the ACC in 2019. More importantly, on the 264 attempts last year Hawkins had ZERO fumbles. He’s a RS Sophomore this year, so another successful season may be his last in a Cards uniform. Both Hawkins and Atwell were getting early Heisman odds this year (around 33-1) and I don’t think that’s lip service, as Louisville has the horses to field a Top 10 offense in 2020 and those guys will lead the charge.
STS: On defense the story is less optimistic. When the Tigers played Louisville last year, they were criticized for a “slow start” yet still tallied 45 points. The Cardinals also allowed 45 points to Kentucky and 52 to Miami. Do you expect strides on that side of the ball or will it take more time to see growth there?
CC: For the first time in four years the players walking back into the locker room on that side of the ball will have the same defensive coordinator they had the season prior. Clemson knows better than anyone about the significance of continuity on staff and how bringing in players that fit your scheme is crucial to development and consistency year over year. I’m not calling Coach Bryan Brown the second coming of the man in the yellow hat, but I am curious, by George, at just how well this team can improve upon a season that left some things to be desired. Folks forget this was a Top 3 defense in the ACC their first three seasons in the league, but Petrino made some bad hires after Grantham and things fell alllllll the way off.
At a very high level, they have to create more ‘havoc’ by forcing turnovers and getting penetration up front. The defensive line underperformed last season and put a lot of pressure on the linebackers (who are talented) and the secondary (which needs some depth) to make plays. Teams knew they could run the ball, and boy did they, with the Cards giving up over 205yd/g on the ground.
I actually think most of the fanbase understands this is a work in progress, as Brown went back to a 3-4 and utilizes a “Card” or “Star” position with a floating linebacker, slightly different than how they recruited personnel wise in seasons prior. You may call me crazy, but I thought the 2019 Louisville defense could go man for man with their starting 11 with every team in the ACC not named Clemson. The problem was depth, and the 2nd level was a big drop off, which is why you saw scores get inflated as the game wore on. Clemson dropped 21 on them in 4th quarter and, per my quick math, the Cards were outscored 139 to 92 on the season in the 4th quarter. The defense will undoubtedly improve, but this is likely a 3-4 year process before they are back in the Top 3 in conference.
STS: Louisville was one of the surprising bright spots in a struggling ACC last year as new coach Scott Satterfield led them to an 8-5 record. The ACC should improve with a large number of starters returning in the conference. Do you expect Louisville’s improvements to outpace the competition or should we temper optimism for Louisville in 2020? Where in the ACC pecking order do you expect the Cardinals to finish and how realistic of a threat do they pose to the Tigers for ACC Atlantic supremacy?
CC: If Louisville was a stock, you obviously should have bought last season while the price was extremely low (sorry McFly, no do-overs), but I think they are still on the rise in 2020. Louisville returns 100% of their passing yardage from last year, 100% of their rushing yards, nearly 84% of their receiving yards and three and half O-line starters. The offense should pick up where it left off and the defense, as discussed above, should improve from last season. I understand the absurdity of this statement but the offense won a lot of games last year by simply outscoring their opponents, as they needed 41 against BC and 62 at Wake to secure those wins. That can’t be the long-term recipe going forward, and Satterfield and staff know that.
If you look at the 2020 schedule for Louisville, show me a team outside Clemson or Notre Dame that Louisville shouldn’t beat. In fact, early odds show the Cards as favorites in every other game on their schedule. Can Satterfield flip the script and take a 2-10 team to 10-2 in only two seasons? Personally, I think that’s a bit aggressive, but another 8 or 9 win season would be amazing in my eyes. As far as Clemson goes, I’m glad we get you all Week 2 in a “possibly” empty or low capacity Memorial Stadium. I’m sure you’ll probably still pump in crowd noise and have your positive COVID athletes lick our Gatorade bottles or something, but all that is likely unnecessary as I don’t think we have enough on defense to slow down the Tigers. I think the Cards can keep it within a couple scores, but we’re another 2-3 years out before we start to see the battles of old (2014-2016). In all seriousness, best of luck this year and I’m sure we’ll be chatting again soon a couple weeks into the season….hopefully.