Louisville transitions without Heisman-winning QB Jackson
LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) — Louisville is determined to prove it can continue to win, even without Heisman Trophy quarterback Lamar Jackson.
Those expectations are pretty high considering the Cardinals will rely on backup QB Jawon Pass and replace nine defensive starters from an 8-5 team (4-4 Atlantic Coast Conference). Louisville is coming off its eighth consecutive bowl game appearance and the Cardinals open the season Sept. 1 in Orlando, Florida, against defending national champion and preseason No. 1 Alabama.
It is an early challenge for the Cardinals though coach Bobby Petrino is stressing long-term growth.
“We feel like we’re going to be a good football team,” said Petrino, entering the fifth season of his second stint as the Cardinals’ coach. “Obviously, there are people out there that don’t. In athletics, you have to prove it in the games that you play, put a good product out there, play hard, win games and put on a good performance.
“It’s just a matter of going out there and proving it.”
Louisville’s task entering its 100th season of football is proving it without its best offensive player in program history and defensive standout Jaire Alexander, who was selected before Jackson in the first round of the NFL draft.
There’s no overstating the dynamic Jackson’s impact at Louisville, which flirted with a college football playoff bid in 2016. Jackson’s numbers as a junior last season might have been even more impressive than the season he won the Heisman. They were good enough to earn him a return trip to New York as a Heisman finalist and repeat as the ACC offensive player of the year.
Petrino hopes to replace Jackson’s offensive goal numbers by committee, while the defense undergoes a makeover with its third coordinator (Brian VanGorder) in as many seasons.
Those changes might explain why Louisville is projected to finish fifth in the ACC’s Atlantic Division.
With Pass taking over at quarterback, Petrino is prepared for growing pains as the new signal caller establishes his presence. Pass could be in the pocket more often than the mobile Jackson was, though the coach adds Pass is capable of running as well.
“I’m calm under pressure, smart and I just try to put my teammates in a better position to make plays,” said the redshirt sophomore, who completed 23 of 33 passes for 238 yards and two touchdowns in six games last season. “As long as I do that, we’ll be all right.”
Some other things to watch this season:
RECEIVER DEPTH: Louisville’s receiving corps sustained a big blow as fall camp opened when senior Jaylen Smith — whose 980 yards and 60 catches led the team last season — underwent an emergency appendectomy and is out for the time being. Fortunately for Pass, he has other options in sophomore Dez Fitzpatrick (699 yards, team-high nine TDs), junior Seth Dawkins (642 yards, four TDs) and several underclassmen ready to join the rotation.
NEW ASSISTANTS: Besides VanGorder, who replaced Peter Sirmon, the Cardinals promoted former defensive quality coach and Petrino’s son-in-law Ryan Beard to guide the linebackers. Grady Brown was hired as cornerbacks coach after working last season at Alabama State.
HOME IMPROVEMENTS: Louisville’s home football stadium recently removed the name and signage of sponsor Papa John’s Pizza after founder John Schnatter was reported to have used a racial slur during a conference call. That came as work continued on a $63 million makeover that enclosed the stadium’s north end and will push capacity to more than 61,000 with additional club seating and luxury boxes. The Cardinals’ practice facilities were also expanded 100,000 square feet with amenities including additional meeting rooms and hydrotherapy areas. “We used to bring the horse troughs out and they would ice down,” Petrino said. “I would shake my head all the time. Now, we have the great plunge pools and they go right into the locker room. … It was really done right.”
KEY GAMES: Besides their nationally televised debut against the Crimson Tide, Louisville will host Western Kentucky on Sept. 15 in an intrastate meeting against Petrino’s previous coaching stop. The Cardinals will host Florida State in ACC play on Sept. 29 to close the opening month and visit Clemson on Nov. 3, seeking their first series win against the Tigers.
SEASON OPENER: Sept. 1 against defending national champion and top-ranked Alabama in Orlando, Florida.