There are two obvious guys who will serve as the faces for Louisville football in 2017; returning Heisman winner Lamar Jackson, and All-American cornerback Jaire Alexander. But below those two, Louisville remains a young and talented team with a bunch of players capable of making a major name for themselves in 2017.
Who is in line to have a potential breakout season for Louisville? Here are four guys who could make a case.
Seth Dawkins, WR
Wide receiver remains a strength for the 2017 squad, with a lot of big targets for the reigning Heisman Trophy winner to throw to. But Jaylen Smith is the lone returning starter, with James Quick and Jamari Staples both graduating after 2016.
Though Dez Fitzpatrick is a trendy option as a breakout star due to a great showing in the spring game, Seth Dawkins is another stellar choice. Dawkins will replace Jamari Staples as one of the starting outside receivers, after seeing major time last year as a true freshman. Dawkins is a great athlete at receiver and has solid ball skills, shown on this one-handed catch against NC State.
Jackson won’t be short on weapons to use this fall, but a breakout year from Dawkins would elevate the offense and give the Cardinals a consistent threat on the perimeter.
Mekhi Becton, OT
The offensive line needs another stellar force to emerge and keep Jackson from running for his life nearly every play. It’s cliche to say that a good offensive line makes the entire offense better, but in Louisville’s case, this was more true than anything.
In five of the first six games, Louisville allowed only one sack in four of them, with zero in the opener against Charlotte. The offense averaged nearly 56 points per game, and looked nearly unstoppable.
The rest? 43 sacks allowed, 34.75 points per game and a bevy of issues. Head coach Bobby Petrino made several moves in the offseason to address this issue, hiring former assistant Mike Summers and placing heavy emphasis on recruiting quality offensive linemen.
One of those recruits is Mekhi Becton, who touts impressive size at 6’8”, 340 lbs. He has already garnered comparisons to future Hall of Famer Jonathan Ogden with his size, and has earned first-team reps as a true freshman. Expecting one of the freshmen to earn reps this early wasn’t a stretch by any means, but Becton’s prowess in run-blocking could be useful.
Dorian Etheridge, LB
Louisville has produced several high-quality middle linebackers in recent years with Preston Brown, James Burgess and Keith Kelsey. Could Dorian Etheridge be the next guy in line for the Cardinals?
Etheridge has impressed the coaching staff since arriving this summer, and it’s easy to see why watching his tape. The freshman has tremendous football IQ on game film, being able to diagnose plays and get from point A to B efficiently. He’ll have to shore up his ability to shed blockers and maybe add a few more pounds to his frame, but his football savvy already puts him at a higher floor than most incoming freshmen.
The true freshman will also have to contend with safety-turned-linebacker London Iakopo, who is fresh off a season-ending knee injury in 2016. If Etheridge can win the starting spot this season, Louisville could add another stellar linebacker to their ranks.
Reggie Bonnafon, RB (or any running back)
As of right now, the running back situation looks to be something by committee, with up to five guys in the mix.
If one can emerge as a steady workhorse with 15-20 carries per game, it’ll take pressure off of Jackson in the running game. Reggie Bonnafon is listed as the current starter; the senior has lacked significant time at the position, but his versatility as a former wide receiver and quarterback could open the door for him as an excellent third-down back, or possibly some trick play options.
Jeremy Smith is a hulking back at 6’2, 224 lbs., and his size is the main reason why a bulk of his work comes in short-yardage or goal-line situations. Smith doesn’t have breakaway speed, but his size and power allows him to run through arm tackles. Smith can catch passes out of the backfield, but he is best used as a straight-line runner.
It’s also worth considering senior Malik Williams, as well as freshman Colin Wilson and Dae Williams. Wilson and Dae Williams are both recovering from injuries, but both have a lot of upside. Williams tore his ACL a few days before the spring game, and could return in a limited role if his rehab is successful in time. Williams excels as a north-south runner, running through gaps with little hesitation.
Colin Wilson arrived late this summer and was one of the highest-ranked commitments Louisville had in 2017. Wilson has excellent ball-carrier vision and can go between the tackles or bounce it outside, and has potential to be an every-down back for Louisville. He’ll miss time due to a hand injury, but could get early reps this fall once he recovers.
Malik Williams has primarily been used on special teams, but could also be in line for a role in 2017. Ideally, he could be used as a third-down back or change-of-pace to sub for Smith.