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Led by Tutu Atwell and Javian Hawkins, can Louisville unlock sleeper team status?

It’s truly amazing how much of a difference a year or two can make. Perception isn’t everything in college football, but it certainly dictates offseason fodder and headlines. Go back 12 and 24 months ago, and the change in those clips and talking points for Louisville look a lot different now.

The noxious scent of the second Bobby Petrino era have lifted away; Scott Satterfield helped inspire a resurgence. Recruiting is on the up and up; Louisville is on pace for a top 25 class in 2021. More directly, though, Louisville has the makings of a compelling team for the 2020 season.

With quarterback Micale Cunningham back, Louisville has some of the more explosive offensive pieces in the ACC, including star slot receiver Tutu Atwell. As the Cardinals looks to find the program’s Next Step, can the offense tighten up along the line and find more ways to utilize a strong group of skill position players?

 

Tutu Atwell: the ACC’s top game-breaker?

The man main in Louisville’s passing offense is one of the top skill position players in the country: Tutu Atwell.

Atwell, a 5-foot-9 burner from the slot, led the ACC in receiving yards per game (98.2), while also ranking inside the top five of the league in touchdown catches (12) and yards per catch (18.2). However, the advanced numbers paint an even more aesthetic picture.

According to Pro Football Focus, Atwell ranked No. 1 among qualified players with an average of 4.17 yards per route run. Essentially, the Miami product averaged over four yards per snap when he was an eligible receiver last season — 269 total plays.

Atwell also finished fourth in yards after the catch per reception: 11.4, according to PFF (697 total). On plays when Atwell served as the primary target, Louisville quarterbacks posted passer rating of 124.2. This is Cunningham’s go-to man.

Louisville’s run game sets the foundation for the offense; however, Atwell is the ceiling-raiser. His ability to crack big plays adds another gear to the Cards on this side of the ball.

 

Secondary Threats

Heading into the 2020 season, among ACC programs, Clemson and North Carolina have the most (justified) hype for best wide receiver corp in the conference, although the Tigers took a big hit with the injury to Justyn Ross.

Louisville, however, deserves to be in the discussion, too. According to ESPN, Louisville’s receivers ranked No. 1 in the ACC last season in yards per target (10.8) and yards after catch on throws of five yards or less (11.7). The Cards also ranked fourth in the league in reception rate on catchable targets: 82.4 percent.

For years now, Dez Fitzpatrick has been a key part of Louisville’s offense — dating back to when Lamar Jackson ran things. Now a senior, Fitzpatrick has seen the high and lows of Louisville football. As a junior, Fitzpatrick averaged 18.1 yards per catch, good for sixth best in the league. Fitzpatrick was one of only five ACC players to average 18 yards per catch — with at least 30 receptions and five touchdowns.

Since the 2017 season, Fitzpatrick is one of five ACC receivers with at least 100 receptions, 1,500 receiving yards and 15 touchdowns. The 6-foot-4, 205-pound Fitzpatrick forms a solid duo with Atwell.

At the tight end position, Marshon Ford — a local, unheralded recruit — emerged in 2019, too. A former walk-on player, Ford earned a scholarship prior to the 2019 season. Ford went on to average 14.6 yards per catch and haul in seven touchdown receptions, the most of any ACC tight end. For his efforts, Pro Football Focus, named Ford third team All-ACC.

 

Javian Hawkins: A star on the rise

During his redshirt rookie season with the Cards, Javian Hawkins proved to be the real deal for Louisville: efficiency, explosiveness and ball security. Hawkins ran for 1,525 yards and nine touchdowns — 117.3 yards per game, second in the ACC. Hawkins posted eight 100-yard rushing games, including seven performances with 120 or more yards, which tied for sixth most in the FBS. When Hawkins ran for 129 yards against Clemson, he snapped a 27-game streak of the Tigers not allowing a 100-yard rusher.

According to Pro Football Focus, the 5-foot-9 Hawkins broke 68 tackles last season, which tied for 12th most nationally. Hawkins is an open-field blur, but he’s also elusive in traffic and an absolute problem for defenses to bring down.

Hawkins led the ACC with 19 carries of 20+ yards, nine carries of 30+ yards and eight carries of 40+ yards. He ranked second only to Travis Etienne — arguably the greatest running back in ACC history, who ran on a pitch count — with 43 carries of 10+ yards.

According to ESPN, 12.8 percent of Louisville’s carries went for 12+ yards; that ranked second in the ACC, behind only Clemson (16.2 percent), of course.

Even with a high volume of carries — 20.3 per game — Hawkins impressed with his ball security as well. With 267 touches last season, Hawkins never fumbled.

 

Impact of Dwayne Ledford

Louisville will need to replace a large hole — literally — along its offensive line. Gigantic offensive tackle Mekhi Becton is gone; the New York Jets selected the 6-foot-7, 365-pound Becton with the 11th overall pick in the 2020 NFL Draft. However, if there’s any offensive line mind in the league to be trusted to find solutions its Dwayne Ledford — Louisville’s offensive coordinator and offensive line coach.

In general, offensive line play wasn’t great in the ACC last season — with a few exceptions, Clemson and Boston College. The Cards were adjusting to a new coaching staff and scheme; adjustments were made at the quarterback positions, too.

Some of the advanced metrics aren’t super kind to Louisville’s line; however, the Cards found success with several key running benchmarks. According to ESPN, Louisville ranked second among ACC teams in average number of yards before contact on carries: 2.71, just behind Clemson (2.72).

With a look at more generic numbers, Louisville’s rush offense averaged 4.87 yards per carry in 2019 (No. 3 in the ACC) — up from 4.21 the year prior.

The Cards also converted 72 percent of their third-and-short rush attempts, too: only Clemson and Boston College ranked higher. Given the success Ledford and Hawkins had together already, one can expect Louisville’s rush offense to stay strong while working to find water in terms of pass protection.

During his time at NC State, Ledford consistently built lines that excelled in pass blocking. The Wolfpack allowed just 41 sacks across Ledford’s three seasons in Raleigh — 1.05 sacks per game. If he’s able to inspire some of the same magic here, Louisville’s offense gets really scary. That’s a potential in-house improvement that makes a huge difference on the margins.

 

2020 Expectations

After the Petrino-inspired bottoming out of the program in the post-Lamar Jackson era, Louisville pivoted, quickly and successfully. Before the conclusion of an embarrassing 2-10 performance in the 2018 season, Petrino was fired (following seven straight losses); in came Satterfield from Appalachian State.

Louisville entered the 2019 season with an over/under expected win total of 3.5. The Cards, however, shattered those expectations, winning eight games, including a 10-point victory over Mississippi State in the Music City Bowl. It was the ideal coda to a season that featured so many unexpected victories.

All of that said, with the 2019 overachievements, it will be hard (but not impossible) for Louisville to find another level to ascend to — at least in terms of wins and losses.

Vegas has Louisville with an over/under expected win total of 7.5 for the 2020 season. The Cards, of course, exist in the Atlantic Division, which means being boxed in on an annual basis by Clemson. SuperBook USA gives Louisville 25-1 odds to win the ACC this season, but there’s no realistic way for the Cards to claim even a division title, barring a collapse at Clemson.

Unsurprisingly, Dabo Swinney’s club enters 2020 as the heavy favorites to repeat as ACC champs for the sixth straight season.

The vast majority of games of Louisville’s 2020 schedule are winnable, though. An early-season matchup at Clemson sticks out; so, too, does a road game in South Bend against Notre Dame in November. The rest of the ACC games — plus the rival bout with Kentucky, which is at Louisville this year — are up for grabs. However, Louisville will have to really

 

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