The infamous "Bobby Bump" has been the talk of the town in recent weeks, as preseason projections have provided filler while we all wait for the 2015 season to start. The second year of a Petrino coached team has seen the team’s scoring average improve by nearly two touchdowns in the past.
Can UofL fans expect to see the same improvement on offense with so many new faces? I decided to take a look at Louisville’s offensive personnel in 2003/2004 and Arkansas’ roster changes in 2008/2009.
Bobby Petrino took over a successful Louisville program and led them to a solid 2003 season. His offense was one of the best in the nation, finishing 15th in the country in scoring. He also inherited an offense with a pretty big question mark in Stefan Lefors. Louisville had come off a run of highly successful quarterbacks with Chris Redman and Dave Ragone, and Lefors was a relative unknown. As we would soon find out, Lefors was up for the challenge, throwing for over 3,000 yards and running for more than 400.
Petrino’s offense produced another breakout star in J.R. Russel. Russell had been a backup receiver that hadn’t made much of a splash until he broke out for 1,213 yards as the go-to option for Lefors. Russell would become the template for the type of receiver Petrino likes to lead his passing game: Tall, lanky, and fast. Russell teamed with senior tight end Ronnie Ghent as well as sophomore Josh Tinch to make up a fairly limited group of receivers. There wasn’t much production at all from the rest of the receivers and tight ends on the team outside of those three. Broderick Clark ended up with 23 catches on the year, but couldn’t make it into the endzone and averaged only 13.6 yards per catch.
The group that really stood out in this offense was at running back. Eric Shelton, Michael Bush, Lionel Gates, and Kolby Smith are all ball carriers that any average fan could still name off the top of their head. They all also have a place in the U of L record book, with each member of the quartet ranking in the top 20 in career rushing yards. Gates is the only one of the four who didn’t average 5 yards or more per carry (4.7). Smith is the only one without 20 touchdowns in his career (18). Three of the four backs were utilized regularly in a running game that accounted for 35 touchdowns and 5.7 yards per carry.
Louisville’s offensive line featured three very talented players in Travis Leffew, Jason Spitz, and Renardo Foster. All three ended up getting a shot in the NFL at some point. I think it’s safe to say that Louisville’s line was more than sufficient, and was a group that helped the offense succeed.
In 2004, Louisville returned the lion’s share of its personnel on the offensive side of the ball. Lefors returned at quarterback with highly-touted freshman, Brian Brohm as his backup. All four running backs returned with Kolby Smith getting more carries and becoming the "big play" back for the offense. Russel and Tinch returned with the added talents of Tennessee transfer Montrell Jones. The offensive line lost three starters, but two were replaced by JUCO transfers who helped the line not skip a beat.
The 2004 "Bobby Bump" seems to have been aided by a large amount of returning starters. The top passer, receiver, and top three running backs were all back to give the team a nucleus of talented and experienced skill players to work with. Throw in the fact that Petrino and his staff hit on the newcomers and you had a nice recipe for a pretty good uptick in offensive production. We obviously don't know what type of improvement the offense would have seen with newer faces at one or more position but I think it's safe to say that not having that issue to worry about likely helped the uptick in productivity.
Arkansas' 2008 team was one that was trying to change their offensive philosophy from a run heavy power team to a balanced attack. That’s an obvious factor that typically leads to some less than desirable statistics in year one. With that being said, Arkansas’ offense had a 1,000 yard rusher as well as one of the best tight ends in the nation. With such a drastic change in offense, it’s easy to see why the Razorbacks struggled to create big plays.
Arkansas’ 2008 season was very similar to Louisville’s 2014 season. If you take out DeVante Parker, the receivers had nearly the exact same numbers as a group. They both lacked the big play threat that helps open up running lanes for the backs. They both finished the season with nearly identical passing numbers with the Razorbacks throwing more interceptions. It honestly jumps out to you how they ended up with 5 wins while Louisville ended up with 9. The defenses played a major (and the main) role in the win totals, but you can really see the differences in the offense by looking at two areas. Louisville had DeVante Parker and they had a deeper group of running backs. While 2014 Louisville got Domonique Brown, Brandon Radcliff, and Michael Dyer to lean on, Petrino was forced to play two freshmen in order to spell Junior Michael Smith.
The quarterback play for the Razorbacks in 2008 was the worst that Petrino has had in his career. Though the quarterbacks combined for 3,115 yards and 19 touchdowns, they also threw 18 interceptions. That includes the starter, Casey Dick, throwing more picks than touchdowns. In Petrino’s system, the quarterback has to be able to, at the very least, distribute the football. Even though he’s had very successful teams that were run heavy, those offenses had solid quarterback play. Casey and his backup Nathan Dick (Yes, that’s real) just didn’t do a good enough job getting the ball to the playmakers outside.
Arkansas also had to rely on a handful of freshmen wide receivers for depth and play making. Four freshmen caught passes, with three of them recording double digit catches. You notice a trend with the personnel groups for Arkansas in 2008; One or two veterans and a handful of freshmen who were out there with them. Petrino’s first recruiting class yielded a group of talented kids that he got on the field immediately.
I won’t pretend to know how well Arkansas’ offensive line played, but it was led by eventual fourth round pick Jonathan Luigs. Throw in two other starters from 2007 and you have a group that has at least spent some time on the field together. Arkansas’ two top rushers actually had pretty good yards per carry numbers on the season, which would lead me to believe that they weren’t a bad group up front.
So what changed in 2009? Petrino had his core offensive players back, and he had Ryan Mallet behind center with a transfer year to learn the offense under his belt. Throw in all of the freshmen Petrino (wisely) got on the field the year before and he now had a lot of depth and weapons to work with.
Mallet would go on to throw 30 touchdowns and only 7 interceptions. He would also put up over 3,600 yards. Mallet transferred from Michigan after they changed their offensive philosophy under Rich Rodriguez, and with an entire year to sit and learn the playbook, a talented kid like him flourished under Petrino.
The group of running backs went from being two-deep to four with the addition of freshman Ronnie Wingo and sophomore transfer Broderick Green. Those additions allowed the carries to be spread out and three of the four running backs ended up averaging 5.6 yards per carry or better. We saw what a stable of backs can do in the system in Petrino’s first two years at Louisville. At Arkansas, it led to the running attack being improved by nearly a full yard per carry and 10 touchdowns.
The receivers really exploded in 2009. They averaged a whopping 15.6 yards per catch after barely getting over 12 ypc the year before. The three freshmen that got significant minutes the year before became the top three receivers on the team in 2009. Greg Childs, Jarius Wright, and Joe Adams were all big play threats and the year of experience on the field likely helped them reach their potential much faster. With D.J. Williams at tight end, Petrino’s offense now had experience at every skill position and his least experienced player was his quarterback that just hadn’t spent time on the field in his system.
The Hogs' offensive line lost two starters in 2009. Having three experience guys is always a plus as well as having an offensive line coach in Mike Summers that has a history with the head coach and knows exactly what is needed from the line. Rushing numbers improved greatly even with the loss of Luigs in the middle.
The 2009 "Bobby Bump" once again saw a good amount of returning experience to help the improvement. Petrino took over a program low on talent and used that to his advantage to get newcomers on the field in 2008. That, in turn, helped him field an offense that had starters or returning regular players at every skill position outside of quarterback. He also had a big time quarterback who was perfect for his system. When taking over a program, your personnel doesn't always match up to what you want to do. Petrino was able to take care of the most important personnel issue with Mallet.
The difference between the first two second seasons for Petrino and this 2015 team is pretty obvious. His previous teams had a larger number of returning experience. When Louisville lines up for its 2015 opener, James Quick and (possibly) Will Gardner will be the only two players on the field that started in the 2014 opener. That number only goes up to 4 if you look at the Belk Bowl to end the season. Compare that to seven starters in 2004 and six in 2009.
Starting experience isn’t everything. We all know receivers and backs are in and out of the game. So just game experience in general is important. The skill position players for the 2015 Louisville team feature three quarterbacks with solid game experience as well as Brandon Radcliff, L.J. Scott, James Quick, and Keith Towbridge. That’s it. Charles Standberry could be thrown in there due to his role as a goal line tight end. After those guys, you’re looking at a group of skill position players that are potential at this point. A good example is JaQuay Savage. Savage is big and talented receiver but he hasn’t shown that at the college level yet. We all feel that he will play well, but it’s not like we saw flashes in a backup role last year and we’re just waiting on him to get his chance.
Alphonso Carter, Javonte Bagley, Jeremy Smith, and all of the incoming freshmen receivers are all guys that I think can and will be good players for Louisville. They could all have monster seasons this year and that would be great. But, compared to the other seasons Petrino has had, they don’t fit in to what possibly led to the "Bobby Bump."
Aaron Epps is the only returning member of last year’s offensive line. Epps entered the lineup halfway through the season last year and the play of the offensive line immediately improved. But the group is losing two guys that will likely be starting week one in the NFL. Throw in Jake Smith and that’s lot of starts that have to be replaced by a group of guys that are either new to the program or couldn’t crack the lineup last year. The 2004 team had to replace three starters and they utilized JUCO players to help that transition. Khalil Hunter and Kiola Mahoni are both guys who we could see used in the same way. We’ve also heard that a couple of true freshmen could end up starting. If that were to happen this would be another position group that doesn’t follow along with the things that seemed to lead to the improvement in the second season.
Petrino has utilized high level transfers like Mallet and Montrell Jones in the past. Could Jamari Staples be that guy to have a big year? Maybe a full year in the system is what one of the three quarterbacks needed to fully grasp everything. The other two seasons I looked at could be completely happenstance and not mean anything at all. But I personally think that the experienced talent that Petrino had to work with in the past means a lot. I think the additions to Louisville’s offense will help it improve because they are all guys that the staff evaluated themselves. The offense will improve this season, but I don’t see the "Bobby Bump" that occurred in 2004 and 2009 happening in 2015.
As Petrino said in his presser this week:
On Year 1 vs. Year 2 for the staff: It's a little different because we came in with a team that was very heavy, senior-wise and experience-wise, talent-wise. All the sudden 26 of them are gone. We have a lot of newness, particularly on the offensive side of the ball, so it's almost like starting over as far as teaching and executing --offensively, I would say, because we have a lot of experience on defense. But I really like our talent. I really like the players that we have. It's just how quickly can we get them to operate at the execution we need. That's been the greatest challenge, is that offensively there's so much newness there that we've kind of had to go slower than we'd like to in Year 2. Normally in Year 2 you would say, 'Everyone understands what we're doing now. We can take further steps ahead.' But we really are young offensively.
The lack of experience seems to be hindering some of the things that Petrino wants to do with his offense. We all know that could be coach speak or misdirection for Auburn. If it isn't and Petrino really feels that his reliance on newcomers could be an issue, we might all be in for a similar offensive performance to 2014.