Carolina’s second opponent of the 2017, Louisville, represents the best chance of the young season for the Heels to make any impact on the national stage. Despite the Cardinals’ late-season swoon in 2016, any visit from a top-15 opponent with the reigning Heisman winner on national television is a great test.
It comes as no surprise that the team centers around Lamar Jackson, dual-threat quarterback extraordinaire. Bobby Petrino has built a career on explosive offenses behind effective pro-style QB’s, but has opened the playbook to a little more improvisation in order to maximize Jackson’s talents.
Interestingly enough, Petrino said at the ACC Kickoff that he wanted Jackson to work under center more in order to improve his stock in the eyes of the NFL. Jackson struggled under center as a freshman in 2015, and came into the national spotlight with his 200/200 Music City Bowl performance against Texas A&M at the end of that season. Reverting back to a little more pro-style seems...counterintuitive.
The defense loses coordinator Todd Grantham, and essentially traded him for former Mississippi State DC Peter Sirmon. Grantham ran a 3-4, while Sirmon runs more of a 4-3/4-2-5 hybrid—personnel adjustments will be interesting, but 2016 starting OLB Trevon Young converted to DE and bulked up in order to ease the transition.
Personnel/Players to Watch
Again, it starts with Jackson. While critics point to his November swoon as a Jackson problem, the real issue was an offensive line that became a sieve as the season wore on. Jackson was sacked 11 times in a loss to Houston, eight vs. LSU in the Citrus Bowl, and five times each against Clemson, Virginia, and Wake Forest.
The line returns tackles Geron Christian and Lukayus McNeil, but replaces the three interior starters. Carolina’s best chance to win this game will be to crash the interior with more experience on the interior D-line and hopefully force obvious passing downs early in drives.
They lose their top three playmakers in the passing game, as well, but showed pretty good balance in spreading the ball around. Jaylen Smith averaged 22 yards per catch and scored six touchdowns as the fourth option. Converted QB Reggie Bonnafon is a dynamic playmaker whom Petrino intends to deploy more as a senior. Sophomores Seth Dawkins and Traevon Samuel showed potential during their freshmen season.
All of UL’s running backs tip the scales at at least 220 lbs, so Carolina will have to remain tough on the interior while accounting for Jackson’s legs on the read option.
Defensively, the Cardinals, again, lose a good bit. DeAngelo Brown and Davonte Fields leave a void in the pass rush that James Hearns (8 sacks) will be tasked with filling. MLB Stacy Thomas returns as the centerpiece of the D after emerging as a leader last year.
The secondary should (at least early on) be the strength of the Cardinals’ defense. All four starters return, including All-ACC CB/punt returner Jaire Alexander, safeties Chucky Williams and Zykiesis Cannon (their third and fourth-leading tacklers in 2016, respectively), and senior corner Trumaine Washington.
All eyes will be on Jackson, but Hearns, Thomas, and Alexander all profile as All-ACC caliber players, as well. Christian at left tackle was a 3rd-teamer last year. And given Petrino’s commitment to find ways to get the ball to Bonnafon, the second game of the season would seem to be a time where the Cardinals have yet to stray too far from that plan.
The obvious key will be limiting a fresh-legged, out-to-prove-his-Heisman-wasn’t-a-fluke-after-all Jackson. The play of Carolina’s defensive ends will be paramount to keeping him in the pocket, as you can live with him beating you through the air moreso than with his legs.
One would think that Andre Smith will draw spy duties, so don’t be surprised to see him rack up 12-15 tackles. If Carolina is going to have success, the developing group of defensive tackles needs to collapse the pocket and make Jackson uncomfortable (without letting him escape the pocket where he is most dangerous).
Sounds easy, right?
Limiting the between-the-tackles running game will reduce Louisville’s ability to hit the vertical passing routes off play action, a staple of Petrino’s offense. Ideally for the Cards, the green running backs will carve out 6-7 yards per carry, causing the safeties to cheat up to stop the run AND Jackson. Next thing you know, 80 yards and six points over the top in single coverage. Jackson, much like incoming Carolina QB Brandon Harris, is most accurate when going deep.
Offensively, Carolina should be in for a dramatic step up in competition from Week 1. I can’t really see the new corps of receivers outclassing Louisville’s talented secondary, so expect Brandon Fritts and Carl Tucker to get the ball on a lot of clearout and seam routes in the middle of the field.
A renewed commitment to the running game is going to be key. 200 yards, minimum, on the ground would go a long ways towards shortening the game and keeping the defense fresh in what promises to be a stifling North Carolina summer afternoon.
There are a lot of ‘ifs’ that need to go Carolina’s way for them to have a realistic shot in going blow-for-blow with Louisville. The Heels only amassed 200 yards rushing in a game ONCE in 2016, and Louisville only allowed that number twice. The Heels have to have made vast improvements against the run (and figure out a sustainable plan for stopping the reigning Heisman Trophy winner), or this whole preview is moot.
If you play this game 10 times, Louisville probably wins eight. Until I have reason to believe otherwise, I predict message boards calling for DC John Papuchis’ head by 2:30pm on September 9. Louisville 45, Carolina 27.
Last time the Cardinals visited Chapel Hill, in 2011, the game was tied 0-0 at halftime. (The Heels ended up prevailing, 14-7). I will bet any amount of money that won’t be the case this year.