Shifting gears from our recent defense previews, we look towards the special teams unit Louisville will have this season.
James Turner had a successful 2020 season as the starting kicker, hitting all 40 extra-point attempts and nailing 13-of-15 field goals (including a 50-yarder in Louisville’s 30-0 win over Syracuse). Turner’s 86.7% accuracy is the third-best percentage in Louisville single-season history, and he enters 2021 having made his last eight attempts.
Punting, however, was an up-and-down battle for Louisville last season. Louisville ranked last in the ACC in punting average (38.41), with Ryan Harwell leading the team in that category (40.05) as he and Logan Lupo split duties throughout the season. Both Harwell and Lupo transferred in the offseason, leaving Louisville with just one punter on its roster to start 2021.
Louisville only fielded seven punt returns last year (last in the ACC) and averaged 3.14 yards per return, ranking 14th out of 15 ACC schools. The Cardinals will also have to replace their punt returner this season, as Rodjay Burns departs.
A year after ranking second in the ACC in kick return average, Louisville finished 12th in the conference in that category with 19.97 yards per return. Hassan Hall once again led the team as their primary returner, averaging 21.1 yards per return on 18 tries. However, he also split duties with receiver Jordan Watkins, whom averaged 18 yards on 11 tries.
Listed Starters: James Turner (kicker); Mitch Hall (long snapper); Mark Vassett (punter); Hassan Hall (primary kick returner); Braden Smith (primary punt returner)
Louisville should be in solid hands once again at kicker with Turner coming back. He’s already proven to have consistent accuracy when it’s inside 40-yards, and hit a 50-yarder against Syracuse late in the year (and nearly hit a 52-yard attempt at Notre Dame, but was just short).
They also got a big boost with Mitch Hall returning for one more season at Louisville, and he has been as reliable as it gets. The fifth-year senior has had just one bad snap across his career. Call me crazy, but I think Mitch Hall could be one of few long snappers in the FBS that has a shot at an NFL tryout.
Whereas Louisville has a sure thing going for them at kicker, there is a new face at punter. In comes Mark Vassett, a 24-year old true freshman from Melbourne, Australia, to fill the void. He was one of 12 Australian players to commit in the 2021 class, and was fourth-best (per 247 Sports) among all players from the country.
Hassan Hall returns as likely the primary kick returner for Louisville, and he’s always been one of the most explosive players on the roster since his freshman campaign in 2018. Hall’s straight-line speed makes him an easy choice for kick returns, and he’ll likely reprise a similar role as a change of pace back for the Cardinals in 2021.
The starting spot at punt returner should be competitive heading into the fall, and Braden Smith (as of now) is listed as the primary punt returner. Smith is a sure-handed receiver that will be starting in the slot for Louisville and could give them a decent option for returns.
Key Reserves: Brock Travelstead, Ryan Chalifoux, Jordan Watkins, Shai Werts
Even though I listed Brock Travelstead as a reserve, he will likely handle the kickoff duties for Louisville. Louisville did improve on its touchback percentage on kickoffs last year (22.9% in 2020, 17.9% in 2019), but was still last in the ACC in that category. Another year in the program should hopefully yield improvements there.
Louisville doesn’t have a true backup punter as a result of both Harwell and Lupo transferring, and right now it looks like Ryan Chalifoux is listed as the backup for it (as well as kicker). Chalifoux handled placekicking duties in the second half of the 2019 season after Blanton Creque tore his ACL, and finished 1-of-3 on field goals while going 22-of-25 on extra point attempts. If he ended up being the starting kicker and punter, he would be the second Louisville player this century (Chris Philpott in 2011) to have started at both positions simultaneously.
Jordan Watkins showed signs as a potential playmaker for Louisville, especially towards the end of the 2020 season. He’ll be a likely candidate to lead the team in receiving this season, but there’s a possibility that he could handle both receiving and returning duties. He’ll likely be behind Hall as a kick returner though, as Hall offers more explosiveness as a runner and can help Louisville’s offense start off in bigger spots.
Shai Werts is another name to watch as a returner. Werts is a former Georgia Southern quarterback that moved over to wide receiver upon transferring to Louisville, and he can be used as a gadget player on trick plays, returns, or inside and outside receiver. With Louisville being deep at slot receiver already with Braden Smith, Ahmari Huggins-Bruce and Josh Johnson, Werts is most likely to see time as a returner, be it kickoffs or punts.