The way the season ended for Louisville served not only as a teachable moment but an opportunity for coach Bobby Petrino to rethink the way he organizes his staff.
After watching the offensive line struggle down the stretch, Petrino realized he needed to make changes. Not only did he bring in trusted friend Mike Summers to coach the offensive line, he decided for the first time in his coaching career he would have five assistants on offense.
Summers serves as the addition; former offensive line coach Chris Klenakis has a new role coaching the tight ends, while Lonnie Galloway (co-offensive coordinator/receivers), Nick Petrino (quarterbacks) and Kolby Smith (running backs) return.
“I think it’s a real strong staff,” Petrino said in a recent phone interview. “Throughout my entire career, I’ve always put the fifth coach on defense. Most of the people I talked to on other staffs have always had four guys on defense. I think it worked out great.”
The shift is meant to help a Louisville offense that lost its way over the final three games of 2016. On the surface, it is easy to point fingers at the offensive line, which struggled to keep strong pass rushes from Houston and LSU away from Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Lamar Jackson.
But the breakdowns happened across the board, a chain reaction that helped lead to myriad problems the Cards simply could not fix.
“You don’t ever think that’s going to happen or see it coming,” Petrino said.
Louisville struggled through wins over Virginia and Wake Forest, but the major issues began immediately after the game against the Demon Deacons. The Wake Forest game kicked off in the evening for a television audience, and Petrino is adamant the short turnaround to a game at Houston on Thursday night played a role in what happened next.
Petrino says he did not see the same type of focus and energy in the week leading up to practice. With College Football Playoff hopes on the line, Louisville looked unprepared and out of it in a devastating 36-10 loss to Houston that put a damper on its season.
“We got off the field at 10:45 on a Saturday night, so those practices on Sunday and Monday were tough on the guys and then travel on Wednesday to play a Thursday night game … there should be a rule made if you play on a Thursday night on the road, you do not play a Saturday night game,” Petrino said.
“I don’t think anybody should have to do that. That’s the only Saturday night ACC game that we’ve ever played in this stadium. Ever. Before a Thursday night game on the road.”
Petrino says he has addressed his concerns with the ACC. Louisville has a short turnaround between a Saturday home game against Murray State and a Thursday night game at NC State this season, but kickoff times have yet to be announced.
“They don’t say anything to me,” Petrino says of his conversations with the ACC. “But it upsets me. Student-athlete welfare needs to be looked at when they’re setting up schedules and games, and Thursday and Friday games. We talk a lot about student-athlete welfare except when it comes to scheduling games.”
The quick turnaround doesn’t fully explain the mistakes that unfolded. Petrino called the Houston game an anomaly, but some of the same issues came back in the bowl loss to LSU, where Jackson was held without a touchdown for the first time all season. Though Louisville was able to move the ball against Kentucky, turnovers ended up hurting the Cards’ chances to win.
Jackson, meanwhile, grew more impatient as it got more difficult to make plays. Because things came so easily in the first half of the season, Jackson tried to do too much down the stretch, believing every time he freelanced or improvised he’d be able to break a big play the way he did in September and October. That also led to some sacks and negative plays that could have been avoided.
“When we went back and really studied it, it was a combination of the offensive line and then Lamar not throwing the ball away, thinking he can make a play with his legs or looking for something big,” Petrino said. “That will be something we work on this spring and all pre-fall next year, is the understanding of when to just throw the ball away and that second-and-7 is better than second-and-15. Really understanding the down and distance and situations and patience on when I can make a big play and when I can’t make a big play.
“For three-quarters of the year, he’s making big plays and he did make big plays out of nothing. He just needed to be a little bit more patient, rely on his teammates a little bit more at the end of the year and take what they give you. That’s one of the things: He was pressing a little bit to make big plays and not reading it all the time like he did early in the year.”
The good news, of course, is that Louisville does have the Heisman Trophy winner returning in 2017. With the changes he’s made, Petrino hopes the Cards avoid what ailed them to close last season.