Louisville Football: 5 breakout candidates for 2017 spring game

Sep 26, 2015; Louisville, KY, USA; Louisville Cardinals quarterback Reggie Bonnafon (7) looks to the bench during the first quarter against the Samford Bulldogs at Papa John’s Cardinal Stadium. Louisville defeated Samford 45-3. Mandatory Credit: Jamie Rhodes-USA TODAY Sports

The Louisville Cardinals Spring Game is coming up this weekend on April 15. Here’s a look at five breakout candidates to watch during the game.

The Louisville Cardinals had a rough finish to their 2016 season after starting with a lot of promise. They were 9-1 at one point before dropping their final three games of the season, finishing with a 9-4 record.

With some new coaching changes and some shuffling at key positions, the Cardinals look to improve and finish a whole lot better. And that starts with a strong spring game from their up-and-coming players.

The Cardinals look to transition their offense to a more balanced style of play, relying more on Jackson’s arm and less on his legs next season. But it all starts up front, the offense has to replace three starters on the offensive line.

Louisville will also need to search for a power back that can take on a bulk of the carries in the run game. They’re rotating a few players at running back on offense. There are a few returning players out for the spring as well recovering from injury, namely running back Jeremy Smith and wide receiver Jaylen Smith.

Defensively, they move from defensive coordinator Todd Grantham to Peter Sirmon. Sirmon brings a more simplified defense to the Cardinals defense, who look to also improve in the ACC next spring.

Here are five players to keep an eye on this spring as their annual Spring Game approaches on April 15.

Dec 31, 2016; Orlando, FL, USA; LSU Tigers running back Derrius Guice (5) runs the ball against the Louisville Cardinals during the first half of the Buffalo Wild Wings Citrus Bowl at Camping World Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jonathan Dyer-USA TODAY Sports


CJ Avery

S, Louisville

One name to look out for in the Louisville Cardinals spring game is C.J. Avery. Avery is a true freshman and early enrollee this spring, however, he’s been hard to keep off the field for defensive coaches.

He is a four-star safety recruit, according to 247Sports, ranked 221st nationally, 20th by position and sixth overall player out of the state of Mississippi. Avery chose to commit to the Cardinals over a few SEC schools and enrolled early. While he was recruited as a safety, Avery is being tried out by new defensive coordinator Peter Sirmon at the outside linebacker position.

Along with redshirt freshman Lamarques Thomas, Avery is getting first-team reps on the Cardinals defense this spring. He looks the most ready out of the four freshman early enrollees on campus already. The true freshman is adjusting quite nicely to the college game and making an impact on a defense looking for a new identity. With some losses on defense, the Louisville Cardinals are still searching for a new playmaker to fill the void.

Sep 9, 2016; Syracuse, NY, USA; Louisville Cardinals wide receiver Traveon Samuel (1) reacts to his touchdown against the Syracuse Orange during the third quarter at the Carrier Dome. Louisville defeated Syracuse 62-28. Mandatory Credit: Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports


Traveon Samuel

WR, Louisville

As the Louisville Cardinals evolve on offense this spring, look for wide receiver Traveon Samuel to play a role. Samuel is a 5-foot-7, 170-pound speedy wideout with 36 career catches, 407 receiving yards and two receiving touchdowns in his career so far.

With wide receivers James Quick, Jamari Staples and tight end Cole Hikutini gone, the Cardinals look to replace their top three receiving targets from 2016. Wide receiver Jaylen Smith will also miss spring camp recovering from surgery.

The door is wide open for Samuel to jump up the depth chart this spring, but there’s plenty of competition around him. Samuel also has 23 kick returns for 511 return yards and a touchdown in his career as well. Samuel is a player, who despite his size, can make plays with the ball in his hands. He also had a 21-yard rushing yard touchdown last season against the Syracuse Orange. With experience on both special teams and offensively, look for Samuel to make some noise this spring.

Nov 26, 2016; Louisville, KY, USA; Louisville Cardinals wide receiver Seth Dawkins (5) celebrates with wide receiver Reggie Bonnafon (7) after scoring a touchdown against the Kentucky Wildcats during the second quarter at Papa John’s Cardinal Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jamie Rhodes-USA TODAY Sports


Seth Dawkins

WR, Louisville

Redshirt freshman Seth Dawkins is another player on offense who could emerge as a threat this spring. At 6-foot-3, he’s a tall target for quarterback Lamar Jackson to connect with in the passing game. And he’s also got some return in the kick return game along with Samuel.

Dawkins appeared in 10 games in 2016. He had 11 catches for 191 receiving yards and a touchdown. He caught a 13-yard touchdown pass in the first game of the season against the Charlotte 49ers. The longest pass he caught all season was a 53-yard pass, which shows some of his ability to be a deep threat. He also returned 14 kicks for 306 yards, averaging 21.9 yards per kick return.

Dawkins has come out of early spring practices as a player who continues to lead the receiving group.

With Jaylen Smith out, it certainly opens the door for a receiver to make a climb up the depth chart, as injuries are part of the game. Having depth and experience to offset things is good for the Cardinals’ College Football Playoff hopes in 2017.

Nov 5, 2016; Boston, MA, USA; Louisville Cardinals line backer Stacy Thomas (32) recovers a fumble while pursued by Boston College Eagles wide receiver Charlie Callinan (83) during the first quarter at Boston College at Alumni Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Greg M. Cooper-USA TODAY Sports


Stacy Thomas

LB, Louisville

Stacy Thomas is one Louisville Cardinals defender who had a big year in 2016. After playing a reserve role in 2015, he made 11 starts at the middle linebacker spot for the Cardinals defense a season ago. He made an impact when placed on the field and this spring is being looked upon to do a whole lot more.

Thomas recorded 85 total tackles (49 solo, 36 assisted), 7.5 tackles for loss, three pass breakups, two fumble recoveries and an interception last season. He was the team’s third-leading tackler in 2016, racking up 21 total tackles and 2.5 tackles for loss despite losing the last two games of the season to Kentucky and LSU.

Thomas returns looking to lead the Louisville defense into a special season, but it starts with a strong spring. With a new defensive coordinator and position coach in Cort Dennison, look for Thomas to emerge as a player with a successful transition under a new system.

Oct 24, 2015; Louisville, KY, USA; Louisville Cardinals quarterback Lamar Jackson (8) hands the ball off to quarterback Reggie Bonnafon (7) during the second half against the Boston College Eagles at Papa John’s Cardinal Stadium. Louisville defeated Boston College 17-14. Mandatory Credit: Jamie Rhodes-USA TODAY Sports


Reggie Bonnafon

RB/WR, Louisville

Reggie Bonnafon is a familiar name to Louisville Cardinals fans, but that’s because he used to play quarterback. This go around, he’s emerging as wide receiver but also as Louisville’s lead rusher this season.

Looking to replace running back Brandon Radcliff, the Cardinals coaching staff has looked to Bonnafon this spring to take on a majority of the carries. Next to redshirt freshman Trey Smith, Bonnafon is also getting some rushing reps in spring camp.

Bonnafon had 13 catches for 159 receiving yards and five touchdowns last season. While he carried the ball sparingly in 2016, he did rush for five rushing touchdowns back in 2014 as the Louisville Cardinals quarterback.

As Louisville looks to evolve on offense this season, Bonnafon could emerge as an option in the passing and running game. As Lamar Jackson looks to become more of pocket passer this spring, Bonnafon could end up being the safety valve he’s needed all along.

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