With a shift to a run-heavy offense under first-year head coach Scott Satterfield, Louisville fielded one of the best rushing attacks in the ACC. The Cardinals averaged 212.9 yards per game on 4.9 yards per carry, both third in the conference.
Redshirt freshman Javian Hawkins burst onto the scene as one of the most exciting running backs in college football, putting up 1,525 yards and nine touchdowns. Hawkins broke the single-season freshman rushing yards record, and put up more yards by a Louisville RB than any player in school history. Along with Tutu Atwell’s 1,000+ yard season as a receiver, it marked the first time since 1999 that Louisville had both a 1,000-yard rusher and receiver in the same season.
Hassan Hall had a stellar season as the RB2 in Louisville’s offense, posting 501 yards with five rushing touchdowns. Hall also had a huge impact on special teams, scoring a kick return touchdown for the second time in as many seasons with the Cardinals.
Projected Starter: Javian Hawkins
The PlayStation nickname that Javian Hawkins carries isn’t without merit. The redshirt sophomore has moves akin to a created player on Madden or NCAA Football’s Road to Glory, and has attributes that would make him OP in online play.
When talking about Hawkins as a player, you have to point to his biggest strengths; speed and elusiveness. When he has gaps in the zone, he hits them already in second gear. That speed was on display a lot (especially as he bounced runs outside), as Louisville was top 15 in 30+ yard runs, and top ten in 40+ yard runs in 2019.
His elusiveness is also a huge part of his game, with an ability to juke past defenders and a strong spin move. The combination of speed and agility, combined with his deceptive physicality against tacklers, should make him a good change of pace back at the next level.
What isn’t talked up enough with Hawkins, though, is his toughness and ball security. He did not lose a fumble in over 260 touches last season, and at 182 lbs., was able to handle a workload of 20 carries per game without much fatigue or wear. As he’s upped his weight to 196 for the 2020 season, he’s better equipped to handle responsibilities as the RB1 in Satterfield’s offense.
Heading into the season, look for Hawkins to continue improvement as a pass blocker and receiver. While I think we’ll see Hassan Hall handle third down situations more often than Hawkins, I do think the latter has potential to be a good receiver out of the backfield. Showing that skill to NFL scouts could elevate his stock to a potential high round draft pick within the next three years.
Key Reserves: Hassan Hall, Maurice Burkley, Jalen Mitchell, Aidan Robbins
Junior running back Hassan Hall adds another explosive option for Louisville’s attack, one that can provide a punch in multiple ways. Hall has game breaking speed that is most noticeable on kick returns, but he has shown an ability to break open big runs on either zone play. He’s also a very solid receiver out of the backfield, which makes him a reliable third down option for Louisville.
With Hawkins and Hall, Louisville could theoretically have two backs rush for over 1,000 yards in a season. While I believe that it would be very hard to accomplish this based on the 11-12 game schedule Louisville has (as well as the number of carries both would have to get), Scott Satterfield’s system has proven that this is possible. In 2016, both Jalin Moore and Marcus Cox reached the 1,000-yard mark at Appalachian State (with Cox making it there in nine games played).
Micale Cunningham’s running ability will take some of the pressure off Louisville’s running backs to produce. When teams have to gameplan for a quarterback’s ability to create plays with their feet, it opens up opportunities in options, play action, you name it.
The three-headed attack of Hawkins, Hall, and Cunningham helps make Louisville’s offense one of the best in the ACC. It also means that we may not see an RB3 get many carries in the offense unless injuries happen. Expect the battle for this spot to go between Maurice Burkley, Jalen Mitchell, and Aidan Robbins.
Burkley has mostly played on special teams, but had eight carries as a reserve last season. He should have a key role as a special teams ace for Louisville in 2020, but expect him to push for reps as an upperclassman.
Mitchell was one of the signees in Louisville’s 2019 class after Satterfield arrived at U of L. He’s a bigger back than Hawkins and Hall at 5’10”, 221 lbs., with great footwork and vision to create big runs. With the NCAA recently passing a vote for all fall athletes getting an extra year of eligibility, regardless of how many games are played, Mitchell and Robbins could benefit from this if Louisville is able to get them in game situations.
Robbins was also a running back commit from the 2019 class, one that stayed with the hometown Cardinals after the coaching change. Robbins is also a bigger back at 6’3″, 230 lbs., and plays with a physical style that shines inside the tackles. He is very solid at getting yards off second effort and has good burst on outside runs to get big yardage. If Louisville needed a heavy set with a bigger back, I would expect Robbins or Mitchell to be the guy they use for those situations.