(Photo of Malik Cunningham: Jim Dedmon - USA TODAY Sports)
LOUISVILLE, Ky. - The Atlantic Coast Conference held their annual Media Days earlier this week, and you can imagine, the Louisville football program was present and had plenty to discuss regarding the upcoming season.
Below are some of the more impactful takeaways points over the course of the two-day event in Charlotte, N.C.
Louisville will kickoff the 2021 season against Ole Miss in the annual Chick-Fil-A Kickoff Game at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta, Ga. on Monday, Sept. 6.
Offensive Style Won't Alter
The offensive side of the ball for Louisville has seen a fair amount of overhaul. Tutu Atwell, Dez Fitzpatrick and Javian Hawkins all departed for the NFL, while offensive coordinator/offensive line coach Dwayne Ledford and running backs coach Norval McKenzie both left for other jobs.
Evan with all the moving pieces, head coach Scott Satterfield says that Louisville will not be altering their offensive game plan.
"We'll be a similar offense as we've been in the past. We're going to run the football, do a lot of play-action, be able to utilize the running ability of (Malik) Cunningham at the quarterback position. Dynamic player."
Satterfield reiterated the notion that the Cardinals will not be using a de facto offensive coordinator, and that it will be a collaborative effort with the offensive coaching staff to "get the ball in the hands of the best players".
"There are some new faces that are going to be in the offense this year, but I'm very excited about the guys we are bringing back, the guys that can play," he said. "Just some of the guys we don't really know, they're not household names yet, but hopefully they will be at the end of the season.
The Need for Speed
Outside of turnovers, which we will get to momentarily, one reason that the offense took a step back in scoring but not yardage in 2020, is the lack of big plays.
'We got to be able to get more of the big plays," Satterfield said. "The plays where you're going the distance, not just a 40-yard play, with you ones that go all the way to the end zone. We got to be able to do that."
Even though speedsters Tutu Atwell and Javian Hawkins are now in the NFL, Satterfield believes Louisville still has some serious home run threats. He is especially high on the capabilities of wideout Tyler Harrell.
"Tyler Harrell is a fast player, fastest player I've ever timed in my career," he said. "I think he'll be one of the guys that will be able to knock the top off the defense, to hit some of those home run plays, some of those big plays.
Satterfield also notes that running back Hassan Hall, who has been hampered by injuries at times in his career, is back to his normal form. He also believes that wide receivers Jordan Watkins and Shai Werts, as well as true freshman running back Trevion Cooley, can help the chunk plays return in a big way.
The Turnover Margin is Crucial to Changing Outcomes
Yes, I know. I'm as tired of writing about turnovers as you are hearing about them. We all know how Louisville had the second-worst turnover margin in FBS football last season (thanks Duke), but it really could be the key to flipping their 4-7 mark in 2020.
The Cardinals were 5-1 in games decided by two possessions or less in 2019, but were 1-6 in 2020. The offense put up comparable yardage marks in the two seasons, and the defense got markedly better in 2020. The only real difference between the two is, you guessed it, the turnovers.
"Both seasons, games came down to the wire. In 2019 we were able to win some of those games, go on to win eight, go to a bowl game," Satterfield said. "Last year we did not win some of those close games. I think that's probably the biggest difference."
While adamant that turnovers aren't "something you can work on" over the offseason, Cunningham has been dedicated to fixing his abnormal turnovers woes from last season.
"I spend a lot of time in the film room, building the confidence in my receivers, those guys to make plays for me this year. So that's what we're going to do," he said.
Cunningham's Experience Will Be An X-Factor
Over the last two seasons, we've seen two different versions of quarterback Malik Cunningham. The first version was the most accurate passer in school history, while the second features uncharacteristic turnover issues.
Whichever Cunningham shows up over the course of the 2021 season, the program believes his experience and leadership will be a key component of the offense's success, and that he can learn from his bumpy 2020 campaign.
"There's a fine line there where you have to say, The defense has this one, let me throw the ball away, as opposed to I can always make the play. There's a fine line there," Satterfield said. "That comes through experience. He has to understand when he can and can't make those type of plays. He's capable of being one of the best quarterbacks in the country this year, I believe that."
It goes beyond the stat sheet as well. Entering his fifth year with the program, Cunningham believes that his combined experience from 33 games and two different coaching staffs can help him be the leader he needs to be to the younger players.
"I had a role back then, but the role is bigger now," he said. "Being the leader of the offense, leader of the team. Those guys look up to me, know I have to come through for those guys when we need it most. Not just be there when everything is high and good, got to be there for the lows. They have to have somebody to look up to and I'm that guy."
Defense Two Steps Away From Elite Status
In just two seasons, defensive coordinator Bryan Brown has turned the Louisville defense from one of the worst in college football to one of the best in the ACC.
But there is still work to be done. Some positions have great depth, others still have work to do, but regardless of area, Satterfield says there are two areas that separate the Louisville defense from elite status: pressure and turnovers.
"Number one is create more pressure on the quarterback," he said "We have not been able to create enough pressure and create enough sacks. I think that will help our defense. I think when we do, that that's going to help our number two thing, which is creating more turnovers."
Once Louisville gets those two areas in line, Satterfield thinks they can become "one of the top defenses in the country". Talent and depth might be the remaining focus, but they certainly aren't lacking leadership and trust.
"I just think this defense trusts each other, and are a better well-rounded defense at each position," inside linebacker CJ Avery said. "We have a lot more guys willing to be leaders and step up, make sure the team comes together and plays at one. That's the key thing. If you don't have any leaders on your team, it's kind of hard to be a great team."
Cardinal Stadium Getting Named Soon?
For those accustomed to just saying "Cardinal Stadium", you better get used to adding a corporate sponsor to the front. In an interview with 247Sports, athletic director Vince Tyra said that the university has been "actively in the process" of finding a new corporate sponsor to purchase naming rights for the stadium.
"We are doing the interview with the agents, doing the interviews with everything that goes on to pick your corporate sponsor," he said. "But the reason I wouldn’t box into a deadline is that this thing could go one of two ways depending on the sponsor."
Tyra said that depending on the sponsor and the subsequent sponsorship package, the new name could go into effect as early as this season.
Spring Game is Back!
A staple of spring practice under Satterfield has been the lack of a spring game, although that appears it will change very soon.
In a radio interview with ESPN 680, Satterfield said that Louisville will indeed have a spring game in 2022. While there have been no details released yet as to what the new spring game will look like, get ready to resume April tailgating.
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