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Behind Enemy Lines: Talking Louisville Football With Mark Ennis

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Getting all the good details on BC’s opponent

NCAA Football: TaxSlayer Bowl-Louisville vs Mississippi State Melina Vastola-USA TODAY Sports

Each week BC Interruption talks to a writer on a team that is scheduled to play the Boston College Eagles. This week we were fortunate enough to talk with Mark Ennis, who is a host of The Drive on @939TheVille from 3-6 M-F. Make sure to follow Mark on Twitter!

BCI: Talk a little about 2017 for Louisville. How do fans feel the season went, what were the high and low points?

Mark Ennis: High points for Louisville last year were winning at Florida State for the first time and pulling even with them in four years in the league. Clubbing rival Kentucky yet again and evening up the all time series is always nice, too. Sending Lamar back to New York City as a Heisman finalist was also great for fans who wanted to see him be recognized despite the team’s relative struggles. There were two kinds of low points. The first kind was the Clemson kind. College Gameday on campus, as full and fiesty a crowd as you’ll ever see here, and they just got worked in front of a national TV audience. The other kind of low point was the uninspired effort kind: losing to Boston College the way that they did, never being interested at Wake Forest, and letting a Mississippi State team using a skeleton crew working you in a bowl game. Different kind of lows, but low all the same.

BCI: What are the Cardinal’s strengths and weaknesses going into 2018?

Ennis: Without question Louisville’s single biggest strength is at wide receiver. Louisville is the only team in the ACC to return three guys that had 600+ yards receiving last year. Jaylen Smith was preseason All-ACC, Seth Dawkins, Dez Fitzpatrick who was a Freshman All-America as a redshirt freshman last year give them three really big, fast weapons and there’s at least six other guys who played last year or who enrolled in January who can contribute. The offensive line returning four out of five starters and finally having depth is a close second.

The biggest weakness, to me, is at linebacker. I feel like in the offseason they did a good job addressing the defensive line and secondary concerns with a collection of really good signees who enrolled early, JUCOs who enrolled in January and went through spring ball, and a set of transfers who sat out 2017 and can play this year (CB RodJay Burns from Ohio State, CB PJ Mbanasor from Oklahoma, and OLB/DE Boosie Whitlow from South Carolina, all four-star kids out of high school). But at linebacker they really only return Dorian Etheridge, are growing big safeties in PJ Blue and CJ Avery into rangy linebackers, and counting on four-star early enrollee Robert Hicks to both learn a new defense and/or learn new positions. It’s a lot to ask and while it might ultimately work out, it’s not a position of strength at all.

BCI: How will UL move on from Lamar Jackson? Who will be the signal caller this season?

Ennis: The loss of Lamar Jackson will definitely change what Louisville does but it’s not going to be catastrophic. Petrino had Stefan Lefors at Louisville finish his career as the most efficient passer of all time and quietly replaced him with Brian Brohm. Who was pretty good. He had Ryan Mallet and just moved right to Tyler Wilson. Louisville moved the ball just fine his first year here even as injuries forced him to play Will Gardner, Reggie Bonnafon, and Kyle Bolin in 2014.

Jawon Pass is sort of in the Lamar Jackson mold. He’s very mobile and arrived very raw as a passer. Unlike Lamar Jackson, however, he’s big (6’4, 240). You look at him and he reminds you of Jacoby Brissett from NC State a few years ago. He’s not nearly as elusive as a runner (who is?) but he’s still very powerful and fast so the running element won’t leave the offense. But just last week at ACC Football Kickoff, Petrino told me he thinks the traditional drop back passing elements of the offense will be better under Jawon Pass than they were under Lamar Jackson. And that’s where Petrino is really at his best: scheming guys open with route combinations.

BCI: UL was 5th in the Atlantic in the Preseason Poll. Make a case why they should be higher.

Ennis: There are so many unknowns on this Louisville team that I can’t make an undeniable case for them being much higher. The only thing I’ll say about expectations for Louisville this year is that whatever you think the issues with Louisville are that make you think they’ll take a step backwards, the teams you’re putting ahead of them have the same issues. NC State returns nice offensive pieces but they relied on that defense a lot last year to keep games winnable. Last I checked, that defense is largely in NFL training camps now. Louisville gets them at home. Wake Forest was a tremendous offense last year and Wolford really made it go. Now? Wake has Kendall Hinton at QB who has never shown me much of anything, is suspended the first three games, and Louisville gets them at home. Last year Louisville had 625 yards of total offense and it still took a late Jaylen Smith fumble for Boston College to be in position to win that game. Yes it’s in Chestnut Hill this year, but I have a hard time believing Louisville will be so inept defensively this year to put that down as an automatic loss. Louisville won at Florida State last year without Jaire Alexander, Stacy Thomas, or Drew Bailey on defense, has played Florida State tough in the two losses in 2014 and 2015, gets the Noles at home early in the season, and the Noles will be in game four of a new coaching staff and a dramatically new system. I think you can reasonably make the case for as low as fifth and as high as second.

BCI: Who are some names BC fans should be looking at on the offensive and defensive side of the ball?

Ennis: Aside from the three receivers named above, running backs Dae Williams and Colin Wilson are names to watch on offense. Petrino has said with the departure of Lamar Jackson to the NFL that the team will be led in rushing by a running back (for the first time since 2014!). Williams is a huge, powerful back who played coming off a torn ACL last year but is fully healthy now. Colin Wilson was a four-star signee last year who showed up right before camp opened, was never in good shape, and then got hurt. But he too is fully healthy now and Petrino raves about. Physically and running style wise, he reminds me of Dennis Johnson. A running back Petrino had at Arkansas.

On defense, aside from the transfer names I mentioned above, keep an eye on Marlon Character, a former HS All-America who signed with Auburn originally and will play all over the secondary. Up front, Jon Greenard has been quietly playing behind Trevon Young and James Hearns but the edge rushing job is all his now. With a more aggressive scheme, he should thrive for Louisville.

BCI: Hollywood producers are going to make a movie on Louisville football, who would play Bobby Petrino and who would play Papa John?

Ennis: Oh man this is fun. For Papa John, I would go with John Cusack. For Bobby Petrino, nobody really jumps out at me because he keeps his personality under wraps to the world so much. However, for some reason I always think of somewhat obscure actor Terry Loughlin, would be a good Petrino. People will recall he was the sinister jury foreman in A Time to Kill. If not him, then just give the job to John Malkovich. He does a great job playing evil geniuses.

BCI: Come on you have to admit that AJ Dillon hit stick was pretty awesome right?

Ennis: The dictionary definition of “awesome” includes “inspiring great admiration, apprehension, or fear” so in the latter given senses of that word, yes. It was awesome. In all seriousness, that was emblematic of the Peter Sirmon defense last year. One guy getting to the ball and when he got there, he was quite amenable to pleasantly getting out of the way. It was one of the least furious pursuit defenses and one of the least effective one on one tackling defenses I’ve ever seen at Louisville. I’ve seen unskilled and I’ve seen poorly coordinated but I’ve never seen the painfully unenthused defense we saw in large stretches last year. So thanks for making me go back to that place.

BCI: What is the craziest or most unique Louisville tradition (football or non-football)?

Ennis: Louisville football has really only had constant change over decades and that hinders the development of a ton of “tradition”. There’s really not a ton to speak of since they’ve changed stadiums a handful of times, changed leagues multiple times, and rocketed from considering dropping football in the 1980s and playing in a minor league baseball to building their own stadium, expanding it twice, and moving into the ACC with the elites of college football. All in about 35 years. But you’ll get your C-A-R-D-S and “Cards First Down” cheers which have been around for a long time. Mike Rutherford and Card Chronicle have made the rubber Cardinal mask a staple at games. You get the Card March where the team is dropped off on the Central Avenue overpass and marches into the stadium through the assembled fans in the parking lot. Most recently, and I hope it’s something that continues, is the use of Ali and his voice as part of the team taking the field. Starting with the Florida State game they played a hype video with him talking about the city of Louisville and then rang a boxing ring bell and the team took the field and the crowd blew up. I hope that one sticks going forward.

BCI: It’s summertime. What is your beer and song choice for this summer?

Ennis: Honest to God, I really don’t love beer and don’t drink it. I’ve completely embraced living in Kentucky and that means bourbon. I just vary how much ice/water I cut it with based on the seasons. And I’m a Four Roses guy, as long as I have the money. We did just finally get Yuengling distributed in Louisville and while it’s all of the sudden cool to not like it, it’s a good beer. Song? Well, guess what. I have three kids that are six years old and younger. So I haven’t listened to a cool song in ages. In fact, for most of this long drive to vacation I was forced to endure Taylor Swift. So I guess we’re buddies now.

BCI: Final question: Pick a GIF that best describes how you envision Cardinal’s season going this year

Ennis: Replacing Lamar Jackson, a schedule with Alabama and Clemson on it, a new defensive coordinator that was practically out of football, yet I’m still optimistic for improvement this year, so this is me: