Louisville opens spring practice Tuesday with heightened expectations. Here are three storylines to watch:
1. Lamar Jackson's development: One of the biggest reasons why many are pegging the Cards as a darkhorse in the Atlantic is Jackson, who had a brilliant performance against Texas A&M in the bowl game. With Garrick McGee off to Illinois, quarterbacks coach Nick Petrino and new co-offensive coordinator Lonnie Galloway will take the lead in helping Jackson with his development going into a crucial sophomore season. Goal No. 1 in the spring is to work on his footwork and accuracy in the passing game.
"His understanding of defenses was a great improvement from the end of the season to how he played in the bowl game and you saw that happening in practice," coach Bobby Petrino said. "We just have to build on that. I want him to be able to have a lot of confidence in his accuracy and most of that for him starts with his footwork in the proper position and just being more consistent in throwing the ball with accuracy and timing and really growing up and maturing in the passing game."
2. Offensive line development: Hand in hand with Jackson's development is the offensive line's development. Last season, that had its share of struggles. The Cards used eight different starting lineups to try and find the best combination. Headed into spring, the Cards return center Tobijah Hughley and three young players who showed promise last season: guard Lukayus McNeil and tackles Geron Christian and Kenny Thomas. Skylar Lacy, who started nine games last season at right guard, has decided to transfer as well, along with backup Pedro Sibiea. Finding the right mix up front and continuing to develop depth has to be a major priority.
3. Replacing Rankins: Though Louisville returns the majority of its starters on defense, there are two key playmakers that must be replaced: defensive end Sheldon Rankins and linebacker James Burgess. Stacy Thomas should be next in line behind Burgess, but what Louisville does to replace Rankins might require a little more creativity. Drew Bailey, Chris Williams, G.G. Robinson and early enrollee Kordell Slater will get long looks this spring.
"I’m not sure that it will necessarily be one guy replacing Sheldon," defensive coordinator Todd Grantham said. "It may end up having to be two guys, meaning this guy does these things well so he plays in this situation and this guy does these things well so he plays in this situation just because Sheldon was really good at what he did."