Louisville football has had some significant coaching and personnel changes since the season ended a few months bag. I figured it would be good to take a look at the state of the program after spring practice. There are a lot of unknowns on both sides of the ball but there are definitely some really good things that should excite fans going into the summer.
THE GOOD: Dez Fitzpatrick has made what I call the “DeVante Leap”. Think back to when we first got to see DeVante Parker play in his senior year. Even at 85% he looked like a far superior player than anyone else on the field. He had transformed from a guy that was a lethal red zone threat and occasional big play guy to a guy that could score any time he touched the ball. He just looked “different”. Dez looks to have made that leap from what we saw in the spring game. The athleticism has caught up to his technical work. He’s added a little bit of bulk and he’s more explosive now.
THE GOOD: I had a real concern that Brian VanGorder’s defense would be inflexible and wouldn’t have adapted to new spread concepts that have exploded over the last few years. My mind was put at ease to an extent when I saw that BVG was using corners to cover the slot in the spring game. I’ve loathed the use of safeties in the slot for the last few years and BVG not only utilized corners like Rodjay Burns, he didn’t use a linebacker. At Notre Dame he tended to slide a linebacker out wider (from the games I watched where I could see the alignment) against spread style formations. At other times he put a safety on the slot receiver at about 10-12 yards. Neither of those things worked well for the most part. Folks might remember Reggie Bonnafon’s perfect throw to Kai De La Cruz in 2014. BVG went with his base 4-3 and cover two coverage. The linebacker couldn’t keep up with Kai and Reggie was able to drop it into the bucket.
My hope is that we will see a defense that tries to combat some of the inventive things that Clemson, FSU, Wake, and others do by putting more speed on the field. Louisville has been slow on defense for a couple of years now and I think they have the ability to change that in 2018. C.J. Avery at one of the linebacker spots is the type of change that will add more speed. Playing corners at nickel should help the defensive flexibility also. It’s a lot easier to blitz with man coverage behind it when you’re matching up with guys who are used to covering receivers.
THE BAD: Spring injuries don’t typically seem like a big deal but Louisville is breaking in a completely new backfield and the running backs that are likely to get most of the carries have missed out on a ton of reps with their new quarterback. I’m a big practice guy. I think that reps are crucial to what we end up seeing on game day. Dae Williams and Colin Wilson both showed nice flashes when they got on the field but the offense will likely shift with Lamar Jackson gone and I think it would have been really big for them to get a full spring and summer working with Jawon Pass and the offensive line to build some familiarity. Watching practices, team meetings, and film study are all important but nothing takes the place of actually being out there.
THE UNKNOWN: UofL decided to close all spring practices this year for a reason that wasn’t explained publicly. It’s a decision that they’re free to make but the decision to open every practice in 2014 was one of their best. Fans were able to get a feel for the coaches as well as the new players that would be moving into bigger roles. I also felt that it helped build excitement going into the downtime of the summer. In my opinion, only having a spring game takes away from that excitement. Especially when there are so many unknowns with the team this year.
It doesn’t make much sense to me that Louisville would want fewer eyes on the program in the same year that they are expanding the stadium and opening the season against the defending national champions. The newness of college sports helps do drive fanhood. Recruiting sites cash in on subscriptions because fans can’t wait to hear about the new guys coming into the program. That continues when guys are on campus and they finally get their chance to shine. I think that UofL did themselves a disservice by not opening every practice like they did in 2014 so that fans and media could help build excitement for the 2018 season.
THE UNKNOWN: Louisville’s 2018 recruiting class is off to a slow start. Cort Dennison left for Oregon and the ace recruiter might have left the staff with a need to regroup as a whole. Ryan Beard stepped into his spot and his profile is pretty similar. Even from a coaching standpoint.
The biggest question right now is where the staff will focus their efforts. Even though Louisville gives out more offers than almost any school in the country per Rivals, they have typically put their efforts into a specific state or region for the last few years. Alabama, Florida, and Mississippi have all been the focus before. We’re still waiting to see if that’s still the strategy.
It’s too early to know what impact losing Dennison will have but the slow start is a little concerning. There are some positives though. They are holding off Georgia for Jaden Johnson as of now and 5 star DB Chris Steele has scheduled an official visit for this spring. On the opposite end, a few kids have decommited from the program over the last few months. The summer will tell us a lot with kids looking to sign in December.
THE BAD: VanGorder’s defense at Notre Dame was notoriously complex and it sounds like that won’t change at Louisville. A couple of players have pointed out how detailed things are and Rodjay Burns said that he ends up studying and watching film after practice just to see what he couldn’t keep up with during practice.
I tend to thin of BVG as a good NFL coordinator that has a scheme that can easily be too much for college kids with time constraints. The scheme isn’t bad and the play calls are usually not the problem. It can just be way too much for young guys that don’t really know how to study the game or manage their time. At one point in 2014, Joe Schmidt was the only player that truly understood the defense for Notre Dame. That’s part of the reason why they struggled late in the season. Louisville has a young squad with a lot of new players. I don’t think that they have multiple guys that can help keep everyone on the same page.