Tonight at 7, Louisville will stage the second spring football game of the second Bobby Petrino era. With heavy personnel losses from last year's team at wide receiver, running back, offensive line, and safety, it feels in some respects like it's Petrino's second first year as he and the staff have worked overtime to use talented transfers, two, three, and four year junior college signees, and early enrollee freshmen to help balance the classes and replenish a roster that heavily tilted toward seniors and junior who left for the NFL Draft. While the turnover is not absolute, this is more of a second year coach's roster of players than you typically see by his second spring camp.
Discontinuity notwithstanding, spring football games themselves are pretty much the same thing everywhere you go. Real team insights are very hard to come by when there's no coaching change and everything looks new. Coaches are basic with gamelans. They want to avoid injuries above all else, and frankly without an entire class of signees on the field, guys see the field who have no hope of doing so come fall. With that being said, here are some things for fans to keep in mind and be on the lookout for tomorrow night.
1. By definition, in spring game you're only succeeding at your own expense and sometimes it's not even close to fair. So think twice. The first day in accounting class, you learn that every debit has to be balanced by an equal amount of credit to the other side of the ledger. So it is with spring football games. If the running game looks dominant, it's crushing your own front seven. Your receivers are open all day long? They're whipping your secondary. So are the receivers good or are the defensive backs bad? Last year, it looked like Gerald Christian was going to be an All-American tight end when in reality he was eating up backup linebackers and what turned out to be the third team pair of safeties. The point being how the teams are divided up can sometimes create incredibly unfair mismatch. Some players are going to look way more promising than they will against the first team of the opponents this fall and some are going to look awful tomorrow night and be fine by fall (or not play at all come fall). Take everything with a grain of salt.
2. Spring games are great for judging brand new guys and guys going from freshman to sophomore or freshman to redshirt freshman years. As an early enrolled freshman, Teddy Bridgewater showed flashes of what he would eventually become. But he was also very skinny, a little jittery in the pocket, and threw the ball really side-armed. Still, you got glimpses of what he could be. As a sophomore, everything for Teddy was a laser in the spring game. His timing was flawless, his footwork and mechanics far better. That's what you hope to see on an individual level from sophomores (like Reggie Bonnafon, for instance). Can guys like Javonte Bagley or Henry Famurewa make big first to second year leaps with fewer guys in front of them on the depth chart? In addition, it'll be nice to see Jeremy Smith at running back, Alphonso Carter and Traveon Samuel at receiver, Cole Hikutini at tight end, and Khalil Hunter along the offensive line.
3. The quarterback battle might not end, but someone's probably getting eliminated. Reggie Bonnafon, Tyler Ferguson, and Kyle Bolin have all taken various amounts of first team reps throughout the spring, but if you've taken the opportunity to go to any public practices, it's not really a three-headed race. Barring total collapse (this is just my opinion), Reggie Bonnafon is going to be the quarterback when Louisville takes the field in Atlanta against Auburn. He's significantly bigger than he was a year ago, shows more comfort and patience in the pocket, and throws with more confidence than a year ago. You won't see all of that from either of Bolin or Ferguson tomorrow night. If I were a betting man, knowing that Will Gardner is going to return from a knee injury and Lamar Jackson arrives this summer, one of Bolin or Ferguson will look like a clear third place and look for an FCS opportunity to play right away.
4. The offensive line tomorrow will probably tell you almost nothing about the offensive line of the fall. There are two reasons for this. First, is they're going to be matched up with a really deep and talented defensive front seven. Nobody really ran the ball extremely well against Sheldon Rankins, DeAngelo Brown, Johnny Richardson, Pio Vatuvei, and all the linebackers Louisville can run out there (basically see point #1). Second, Louisville will surely work hard to get junior college signees Kiola Mahoni and Kevin Austin into the rotation as soon as they arrive and could very well push several of the true freshman into spot duty as well. They're just getting by for now. The most encouraging thing would be Khalil Hunter and the pair of redshirt freshmen Lukayus McNeil and Danny Burns looking solid.
5. Enjoy it, we could be completely wrong. Last year after the spring game I thought the safeties were destroy the defense and receivers all looked dominant. The reverse turned out to be true for most of the actual season. So don't sweat it. There will be $2 beers, it's the night before Thunder Over Louisville, and it's the last time you'll hear about any of the football players in a good way for about 12 weeks. If you hear anything about any of them between the end of the spring game and fall camp it's probably not good, so forget about that stuff or worrying about which freshmen will qualify and enjoy what should be a cool night before the dog days of sportsless summer (sorry, major league baseball) begins.