(Photo of Braden Smith, Damar Hamlin: Charles LeClaire/USA TODAY Sports)
LOUISVILLE, Ky. - As the Louisville football program slowly progresses towards and prepares for the 2021 season, they will be doing so without three of their biggest offensive weapons from a season ago, including their top two wide receivers.
Tutu Atwell and Dez Fitzpatrick, who both elected to declare for the 2021 NFL Draft, accounted for 1,458 of the Cardinals' 2,686 receiving yards on 2020, 89 of their 202 receptions and 10 of their 20 receiving touchdowns. In essence, not only did Louisville lose their two best receiving options, but also roughly half of their production in the wide receiver room.
However, that's not to say that there is no returning or incoming talent amongst the corps of pass catchers. In fact, through the first half of spring practice, head coach Scott Satterfield thinks they are starting to make progress in terms in stepping up and settling into new roles.
"Those guys have played well. Braden Smith has done some really good things that we can count on him. Shai Werts has coming in, and he'll play. He's gonna play a lot, he'll be in the mix," Satterfield said Wednesday. "Christian Fitzpatrick's a big target on the outside, and Justin Marshall's had a nice spring for us. Justin's got, to me, a lot of potential. He's made a lot of plays as well."
Louisville's most experienced returning receivers are Smith and Marshall. Coming over from Northwest Mississippi Community College, Smith was third in both reception and yardage with 27 for 370. Despite being the third starter, Marshall had a disappointing 2020 with just seven catches for 87 yards.
Other notable returners are freshmen Christian Fitzpatrick and Jordan Watkins. Fitzpatrick missed most of the season due to injury, and Watkins started to find his stride towards the end of the season, logging eight receptions for 57 yards.
The Cardinals are also welcoming a trio of newcomers in the wide receiver room. Ahmari Huggins-Bruce and Demetrius Cannon comes from the high school ranks, while Shai Werts transferred in from Georgia Southern. The latter is in the process of changing positions from quarterback, but Satterfield has already been impressed by his early returns.
"Shai made a big time play today on a touchdown across the middle, and a nice back-shoulder catch as well today," he said. "When you can see a guy who caught, reached back, made a back shoulder catch, that was impressive. You know it's something when he comes back, and the players are giving him high fives and all that."
Of course, having all those assets would be for nothing if quarterback Malik Cunningham was not able to develop any sort of chemistry with them. Fortunately, while Cunningham admits that the first few practices were a little off because of timing, he and his receivers are starting to develop that rapport.
"It's actually a good relationship, considering the guys that are playing now," Cunningham said last Friday. "Some of the guys that I came in with as a freshman, it's been good. Off the field, we've been able to gel together, hang out, not just throwing rocks and stuff. Just bonding back at the dorm and stuff like that. It's been good getting in with those guys."
While Louisville does have plenty of candidates to be the next go-to guy in the passing game, Satterfield is not ready to crown one a such just yet. Heading into next season, he actually believes that the Cardinals will not have a bonafide replacement for either Atwell or Fitzpatrick.
"We're not going to replace, I don't think, a Tutu Atwell, a Dez Fitzpatrick, this early in the season. We got to find ways where we can, where these guys can come in and make plays in their own way, and really help our offense. But I think it's certainly going to be probably by committee this year as you look at all those names we just mentioned, that just kind of come in and help the offense."
The Cards 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.
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