In seasons past it seemed as if Louisville fans would have to actively seek out Cardinal football content on a national level. From digging through college football news feeds to listening to hours of podcasts hoping to hear five minutes of coverage, saying Louisville was "off the radar" nationally would have probably been an understatement. Fast-forward four weeks, just one month into the 2016 season, and suddenly you need to block out an hour or two of your day to try and consume all the Louisville coverage. Videos, articles, blog posts, segments on ESPN, magazine covers…it’s a tad bit overwhelming. The driving force behind that coverage is obviously the overall play of the team as a whole, but the majority of the time the focus shifts to the offensive aberration known as Lamar Jackson. Rightfully so, I may add. The young man is not only doing things we’ve never seen a Louisville athlete do, but things many have never seen a college athlete do period. As in..ever. His offensive production statistically is off the charts, and at the pace he’s going he’ll not only win himself a Heisman trophy, but break a few national records along the way.
I love Lamar, and I know I’m not really placing myself on an island with that take. He’s been a great leader, an amazing athlete, and equally as important, a quality spokesman for the University. Without the play of Lamar Louisville probably isn’t beating FSU by 40+, sitting at #3 in the nation, or walking into Death Valley as a favorite this weekend, but without a few other ‘unsung heroes’ I know FOR SURE Louisville isn’t doing any of those things either.
If you go all the way back to January of this year one of the big offseason discussions was the potential absence of Trevon Young heading into the 2016 season. Young had that awkward non-contact injury in the Music City Bowl and all signs were pointing to him missing some time and potentially missing the entire season. James Hearns had played well in a supplementary role last year but Young was an absolute animal off the edge at the end of 2015, finishing the year with eight and a half sacks, multiple QB hurries and a few forced fumbles. When we found out during the fall that Young was a no-go in 2016 the attention moved to Hearns to try and fill that void, and he has shown up big.
Through four games James Hearns has become the king of offensive disruption. His three forced fumbles not only lead the team, and the conference, but have him in a tie with multiple others for first place nationally. His four and a half sacks also lead the team and set him second in the conference, and eighth nationally. When I covered Hearns in the countdown I knew he could get in the backfield but I had some concerns about how he would play the run. He’s already eliminated that concern less than a month into the year. The Trevon Young injury could have been a big blow to the linebackers but the play of Hearns has gone well beyond that of a ‘fill the void’ type role. He is now without a doubt someone offenses have to account for on each play…and Louisville is not where they are today without him.
While we marvel at Lamar hurdles, juke moves, and 60 yard dimes downfield the Jenny Craig version of Brandon Radcliff is silently having a career season. On only 46 attempts Radcliff has managed to account for 427 rushing yards, three touchdowns, and average over 9 yards a carry…..9 YARDS A CARRY! Do you wanna know why Lamar can hit Quick, Staples, Jaylen and others 50+ yards downfield? Play action, and that play action is worthless if the front seven isn’t scared to death that Radcliff is about to bust another 10-15 yard gain up the gut. Do you wanna know why Lamar has so much success on the read option plays? Because if that defensive end doesn’t crash Radcliff has proven time and again he can gash you for 6 or 7 yards without hesitation. Lamar’s ability to create in the open field is spectacular but the majority of his yardage is predicated on the O-line’s ability to block (spoiler alert, below) and the legitimate threat that Radcliff and other backs with hurt you if you don’t make them a priority.
I threw these stats up on twitter a few days ago and many were surprised at just how well Radcliff stacks up against the ‘elite’ backs across the country…
With 20+ fewer carries than Fournette and 30+ fewer than Cook and McCaffrey, Radcliff is within 68 total yards of all of them, and his yards per attempt stat dwarfs the others. Want to play devil’s advocate with the "he can’t sustain that play with the same number of carries"? I’m game. In fact, if you take the national average for yds/att (4.80, almost a full 4.5yds less than his avg now) and extrapolate his stats so that he also has 79 carries, here is what you get…
Radcliff now has almost 100 yds more than the next man on the list, more touchdowns than anyone else, and oh by the way, still over a full yard better than the next on his yards per attempt. The lighter, faster Radcliff is no joke…and Louisville is not where they are today without him.
For all the beatings the offensive line has taken over the last two years, it’s time they started getting some credit for their play thus far. Just as I mentioned with Radcliff above, without a solid pocket Lamar isn’t get those 40, 50, 60 yard bombs off…he just wouldn’t have time. Even the casual observer has to have noticed how much cleaner the pocket is when Lamar drops back and the lanes the running backs have to get into the second level of the defense, often seeing 3-4 yard gains before even receiving contact. During the countdown I predicted a significant bump in the relatable offensive line statistics. In 2015 they were ranked near the bottom of the country in regards to sacks, tackles for loss, and they struggled to produce long rushing plays from scrimmage. When reviewing those same metrics through the first four games, well….those ‘big uglies’ are playing some damn good football.
With only 1/3rd of the season complete it’s hard to make any broad stoke statements about the O-line’s improvement, but from what we’ve seen so far, it appears Coach K finally has the right players for his system and the offense Petrino wants to run. The naysayers may point to Jackson's legs for the decrease in sacks but let’s not forget that Jackson only attempted about 120 more passes last season than what he has already attempted in 2016 (247/126), meaning he is actually spending significantly MORE time in the pocket this year than last...and still getting sacked less. The offensive line is coming into its own protecting Lamar, and giving the backs room to run…and Louisville is not where they are today without them.