While Clemson gets most of the media attention in the ACC, there is one team that could give the Tigers a run for their money in 2020. The Louisville Cardinals are an attractive team to bet on, as they have a dynamic offense with so many weapons as well as a talented defense. Although they most likely will not dethrone Clemson in the Atlantic Division, the Cardinals can have an 8+ win regular season en route to a potential New Year’s Six Bowl Game and the media attention their star players deserve.
If Louisville plays to their potential in 2020, the program may finally break through come draft night and have a record number of players drafted. On offense, weapons like dual threat quarterback Micale Cunningham, workhorse running back Javian Hawkins, and receivers Tutu Atwell and Dez Fitzpatrick could all hear their names called in the 2021 or 2022 NFL Draft depending on when they declare. On defense, senior veterans Dorian Etheridge, C.J. Avery, and Russ Yeat could also turn Louisville’s breakthrough season into an NFL opportunity.
Louisville has a favorable schedule. Other than the Clemson game, most of their toughest competition will have to travel to Cardinal Stadium. Teams like Florida State, Virginia Tech, and Wake Forest will be on the road against the Cardinals. That means, a few potential first round picks will have to face the Cardinals on the road. This gives some advantage to the Louisville prospects. In these favorable home games, redshirt junior Micale Cunningham could build off of his impressive 2019 campaign and cement his name into the conversation for draft-worthy quarterbacks in 2020. Cunningham threw for 2,065 yards and 21 touchdowns in 2019, and added 482 rushing yards and 6 rushing touchdowns. If Cunningham has strong games against some tough ACC defenders, NFL teams will take notice.
Receivers Atwell and Fitzpatrick are both projected as day 3 prospects by most scouts at the moment. However, if they have strong performances against Virginia Tech’s duo of Chris Farley and Jermaine Waller, and FSU’s Hamsah Nasirildeen and Asante Samuel Jr, their names could rise up draft boards. Atwell is a dominant deep ball receiver and averaged 18.2 yards per reception on 70 receptions. Fitzpatrick has totaled 1,719 receiving yards in his career. Both of these dynamic playmakers could enjoy a huge spike in their draft stock if Louisville can have a successful 2020 campaign and outplay some talented ACC defensive backs.
Javian Hawkins has the potential to lead the FBS in rushing yards next season. Hawkins is an incredible runner with lighting speed, vision, and a willingness to compete. Even at 5’9”, he is a very capable pass blocker and is strong enough to break tackles. If Louisville can have a top 15 season, which is well in the realm of possibility, a lot of the success will be because of Hawkins. Just a redshirt sophomore, Hawkins could elect to return to school, similar to Chuba Hubbard this past season. Still, a strong 2020 could put him on top of the running back rankings for the 2022 NFL Draft. The Cardinals winning the majority of their games would allow offensive coordinator Dwayne Ledford to showcase his star running back in a multitude of ways. This could allow Hawkins to rush for more than the 1,525 rushing yards he had last season.
Linebackers Dorian Etheridge and C.J. Avery are late day 3 projections right now, but could also see their draft stock increase with a strong 2020. Etheridge has logged 208 career tackles as a member of the Cardinals. If Louisville’s defense keeps them in most games, a lot will be credited to Etheridge, as he is the middle linebacker and the most experienced leader on the defense. His leadership for an overachieving team will likely attract a look from NFL scouts. C.J. Avery’s versatility will be showcased in 2020, as he is an outside linebacker who can drop back into coverage and play safety in the box. With a strong year for a good defense, Avery could find himself on NFL teams’ watch list come next April.
The player that can impact the most from an 8+ Cardinal win regular season is strong safety Russ Yeat. Yeat, who was once a top recruit in the state of Indiana, finally had an important role in 2019. In that role, Yeat produced big time. He tallied 61 tackles, 2 forced fumbles, and an interception. Yeat is not currently on the radars of any 2021 big boards, but can change that with another successful campaign.
Louisville is entering their most important season in recent memory. Their offense has a multitude of star power. Their defense has solid senior leadership that could drive them to a huge season. The Cardinals currently have a good number of NFL Draft prospects. However, none are projected to be high picks, as Mekhi Becton was this year. A winning season could change that; their high powered offense led by Cunningham could be on display defeating solid ACC defenses. Their improving defense led by Etheridge and Avery can bring up their win total. The 2021 and 2022 NFL Drafts could see a number of Cardinals be selected. This would drastically help the program for recruiting and transfers for years to come.