You could make a fair argument that Louisville would have finished last season with a record of 9-4 if they had just made more field goals. They lost three of their games by a field goal or less and they missed at least one kick in all of those games. They also missed kicks in their losses to NC State and Clemson which were both close games.
Louisville didn’t really do anything well on special teams last season and it’s one of the most important aspects of this team that has to improve in 2022. From punting average to defending kick returns. All aspects have to at least take a leap forward. Some need to be improved in a way that probably demands new players to step in.
James Turner was one of the biggest surprises in 2020 when he went 13-15 on field goals and became a very key factor for the offense. His one struggle was field goals over 49 yards which he worked on all offseason. He started 2021 on a good note, making his first four kicks but things went downhill from there. He missed at least one kick in 7 of the next 8 games in which he attempted one including missing the game-winner against Virginia.
The staff finally made a change in the bowl game and Brock Travelstead made all four extra points after Turner missed a field goal. Travelstead has been handling kickoffs for two seasons and put about 42% of his kicks into the endzone for touchbacks. His leg strength has never been an issue but the former Army All-American will likely get a shot to show that he has the accuracy to be the starting kicker. One of these two will need to step their game up and be reliable because UofL can’t continue to lose close games.
The punting job will fall to Mark Vassett again this year after the freshman struggled to be effective last season. Louisville followed the trend of bringing in an Australian punter from Pro Kick. The academy has produced a run of Ray Guy award winners and NFL talent, so the expectations were high. UofL finished 97th in punting average and they were only ranked 36th in opponent punt return average. While Vassett’s hangtime might be strong, he has to be able to flip the field when needed.
Louisville continued to have big plays in the return game last season but they weren’t nearly as consistent as they needed to be. Braden Smith returned a punt for a touchdown against EKU and Jawhar Jordan took a kick back for a score against Air Force. That was about all the team got from a return standpoint.
Jordan will likely be a threat to score or make big returns this season if his touchdown return is a sign of anything. He set up his blockers very well and used his speed to cut back to the sideline and outrun the coverage. He also runs very hard and has the potential to break a tackle or two to extend a return. He is the only real exciting aspect of the special teams out of the returning players.
Josh Johnson was listed as the punt returner on the summer depth chart but I wouldn’t be surprised if we saw Braden Smith get another shot at the role. Johnson is a veteran receiver but he doesn’t have great speed and isn’t much of a threat. He is likely the best option from a possession standpoint but he did muff a punt last year. It’s not easy to return punts for a lot of yardage anymore so it is possible that the staff just puts someone reliable back there as opposed to the best actual returner.