Fresh off of a new contract with a substantial raise, Bobby Petrino leads his team into the third spring game of his second stint as the head coach. Louisville returns virtually everyone on an offense full of players Petrino and his staff recruited. They were also aided by the news that four players on the defensive side of the ball would be returning for another season as opposed to declaring for the draft. I'm a firm believer that you really find out how a coaching hire is going in year three. The team is typically almost completely made up of players the coach recruited and the systems and schemes are in place. Saturday is the first chance to see how year three will go for the Louisville Cardinals.
HOW DOES THE OFFENSIVE LINE LOOK AND PLAY?
Whether you look at it as an excuse or as a true weak point, the offensive line was a glaring issue all of last season until the last two games of the season. Quarterbacks were pressured too often and too quickly. Running backs rarely had clean holes to run through. Penalties were costly and plentiful. The group was made up of young players that showed promise and veteran players that didn't seem to fit the system too well.
What will be interesting this weekend is who makes up the first five guys out there. Geron Christian and Lukayus McNeil are pretty much locked in as starters. Is Tobijah Hughley still the center? Or have they decided to finally find someone that could supplant him? Kenny Thomas played fairly well last year before injuries kept him off the field. I'd imagine that he will be a starter opposite Christian. Kiola Mahoni could be the final starter in the group or possible a younger player that didn't see the field last year.
When it comes down to it, this offense and the season as a whole, possibly, hinges on the play of an offensive line that is mostly made up of the same guys that struggled much of last year. On Saturday it would go a long way if there were no penalties or blown blocking assignments.
STACY THOMAS AND OTHERS STEPPING INTO NEW ROLES ON DEFENSE
Louisville lost two of the best defensive players the team has had recently in Sheldon Rankins and James Burgess. Burgess will be replaced by Stacy Thomas who is entering his redshirt junior year. Thomas gave fans a glimpse of his abilities after finishing second on the team in tackles in the Music City Bowl, with 11. Thomas should fit in well with Keith Kelsey and ensure that Louisville's group of linebackers are still among the best in the ACC.
Replacing Sheldon Rankins won't be as easy as replacing Burgess. Rankins was unbelievably versatile as he could play all three spots along the defensive line and he could play them extremely well. L.D. Scott has already pointed out that the lack of depth along the line is worrisome but that he likes the talent he has available. I think that Drew Bailey will really take a step forward and help lessen the blow of the loss of Rankins. Bailey has the size and showed some good flashes in a decent amount of time on the field last year.
Though I think that it's a big loss with a guy like Rankins, I do also think that the group as a whole can do a pretty good job of replacing him. One of the young players could also be the next Sheldon Rankins and we just don't know it yet. Kyle Shortridge is my personal pick for that possibility. I'll be looking to see how he plays this weekend.
THE ENERGY OF THE TEAM
This is the season where all things are realized and I don't think that's lost on the players. This team has hung with Clemson and FSU over the last two years and now they have all of this offensive talent coming back with a defense that has been really good for years now.
I'm really interested to see what kind of fire and energy we will see Saturday. There are a lot of unknowns about this team but there is no doubt that the young talent on this team has the potential to be very exciting and very entertaining. I don't expect this team to behave like the "U" or anything, but I'd love to see the bench show some emotion after a big play and the guys on the field to be happy for each other when they do well.