A 1,000 yard receiver would have been a bold prediction for Louisville in 2019, but Tutu Atwell achieved that and more. The sophomore set a new single-season school record with 1,276 yards, and tied the single-season touchdowns record (12). Atwell averaged 18.2 yards per reception on his 70 catches, and threw a touchdown pass that helped Louisville rally from a 14-0 deficit to eventually win the Music City Bowl.
Right behind was Dez Fitzpatrick, who finished with 35 receptions, 635 yards, and six touchdowns on 18.1 yards per catch. Fitzpatrick’s junior season featured three 100-yard games, all back-to-back-to-back from late September to mid-October.
Seth Dawkins averaged 21.8 yards per catch on 16 receptions for 348 yards, with three touchdowns. His most notable game came against Boston College, where the senior had a career-high six catches for 170 yards and a touchdown.
H-back/tight end Marshon Ford emerged as a key cog in both the passing and run game. His run blocking was pivotal in Louisville becoming one of the best teams on the ground in 2019, but his breakthrough as a reliable pass catcher opened things up big time for the Louisville air attack. Ford’s 2019 season saw him snag 20 catches for 292 yards, and seven touchdowns (second on the team).
Tight ends Jordan Davis and Ian Pfeifer, along with reserve receiver Devante Peete, were the only other Louisville players with a touchdown reception in 2019.
Among all Louisville receivers who recorded a catch last season, Seth Dawkins is the most notable departure from the starting WR unit. Reserves Devante Peete, Thomas Jackson, and tight end Jordan Davis depart as seniors. Keion Wakefield went to West Virginia as a graduate transfer.
Projected Starters: Tutu Atwell (slot), Dez Fitzpatrick (X-receiver), Justin Marshall (Z-receiver); Marshon Ford (tight end)
As has been the case throughout the 2010s, Louisville will once again have a very deep receiver group. Tutu Atwell, Dez Fitzpatrick, and Marshon Ford are all viable All-ACC candidates, with Atwell being a potential All-American candidate.
Arnold Jackson, Deion Branch, and Harry Douglas are the only three receivers in Louisville history with multiple 1,000-yard seasons. Tutu Atwell should make a serious push to become the fourth, if not be an All-American and Fred Biletnikoff Award candidate. Atwell is a gifted receiver that can get separation at any level of the field, especially deep against safeties. His speed and penchant for big plays allows Louisville to design plays to get the ball in his hands, like pop passes or jet sweeps.
As NFL teams continue to look for small, dynamic wide receivers that can be used in creative ways like Kansas City’s Tyreek Hill, Baltimore’s Hollywood Brown, and Indianapolis’s T.Y. Hilton, Atwell could be a possible mid-to-late round selection in the 2021 NFL Draft. If teams aren’t able to land one of the marquee draft prospects like Rondale Moore or Jaylen Waddle, Atwell can definitely fill the role with his athleticism and versatility, especially if he is used in a return role.
With Atwell being able to command double teams and/or priority in defensive gameplans, that opens the door for both Dez Fitzpatrick and Marshon Ford to get one-on-one matchups. Fitzpatrick is a very talented receiver, and in my opinion, is the epitome of a ‘diamond-in-the-rough’ type prospect for the 2021 NFL Draft. Fitzpatrick’s technique is consistently good, especially in his footwork and route running. His ability to adjust and make tough catches, combined with a solid run-blocking game, should make him a solid late-round get for any NFL team.
You could make a strong case that Atwell or running back Javian Hawkins were the breakout players for Louisville last season, but Marshon Ford has one of his own. He excelled in run blocking (especially outside the tackles), and he is a very reliable target in play-action. I’m not sure what exact position would be the equivalent of a basketball ‘glue guy’ in football, but Ford fits the bill in that aspect. With him on the field, Louisville has a player that can execute and be the difference between a five-yard run and a 45-yard run.
But who will be replacing Seth Dawkins as the other outside wide receiver? That will likely fall on Justin Marshall, who will finally get a chance as a starter. Marshall is a big target at 6’3″, 213 lbs., and led the team last season with 22.5 yards per catch on six receptions. With more playing time as the starter, he could be another big play threat, especially on deep play-action passes or end zone lobs.
Key Reserves: Corey Reed, Braden Smith, Tyler Harrell, Christian Fitzpatrick; Ian Pfeifer (tight end)
After an abbreviated stint at Iowa Western, Corey Reed returns to Louisville with a chance to become a key contributor for the Cardinals. Reed was one of the top prospects in a loaded 2017 class, but only had eight catches in his freshman season and was behind a really deep wide receiver group during his first run at Louisville. He could push for reps as an outside receiver, and should be a big body target that can spell Fitzpatrick or Marshall.
Braden Smith has been hyped up since his arrival on campus, and should be the backup slot receiver. He doesn’t have the burner speed that Atwell possesses, but he has a proven knack for finding gaps in coverage and isn’t afraid to reach for catches over the middle. If Louisville goes to any four-wide or empty sets, you might see Smith on the field with the starters as a good screen option or intermediate target (you could even see him in some three receiver sets as a slot, if Atwell needs rest). If Josh Johnson is 100%, I could easily see him pushing for playing time there.
Tyler Harrell is another guy that could get reps, solely off his ability as a speedy threat outside. Harrell has played sparingly in his first two seasons at Louisville, but with a lot of departures and some transfers, he has the chance to play either outside or in the slot. He has a quick first step off the snap that allows him to beat receivers deep, especially with his 4.41 40-time and 10.37 in the 100-meter dash. I think his route running is very sharp, and that would make him a quality option for underneath routes or screens.
Dez Fitzpatrick’s younger brother, Christian, will also push for playing time as a true freshman. Christian is slightly bigger than his older brother at 6’4″, with the potential to raise his frame from 215 to 225-230 by his senior season. His three biggest assets as a receiver are great body control, good catch radius, and long strides, all which make him a dangerous downfield threat. It’s possible that he could redshirt his freshman season (as his older brother did in 2016); but with the four game limit, it should allow him to get opportunities and see if Louisville can groom another big play threat for the future.
Louisville’s backup tight ends will mostly be used for blocking, but they do get a lot of experience with Ian Pfeifer returning for a sixth season. Pfeifer came to Louisville as a graduate transfer after starting his college career at Vanderbilt, where he made starts at guard before moving to tight end. His experience on the line gives Louisville a glorified sixth O-lineman when they run two tight end sets, especially useful on outside zone when they have Marshon Ford off the line as an H-back blocker in pistol or shotgun. If they run goal line or heavier sets, expect Ford, Pfeifer, and Tobias Little to make up the three deep as blockers.