For the final three weeks of our Louisville football preview, we’ll be looking at the skill positions on offense. We start with the receiver group, including the tight end position.
The dynamic duo of Dez Fitzpatrick and Tutu Atwell led the team in receiving, tallying 833 and 625 yards, respectively. Atwell also led the team in receiving touchdowns (seven), with tight end Marshon Ford second in that category (Ford had 25 receptions for 309 yards and six scores in 2020). Fitzpatrick also led the team with 19.4 yards per catch.
Braden Smith (27 receptions, 370 yards) is the top returning receiver for Louisville in 2021, with Justin Marshall (seven receptions, 87 yards) and Jordan Watkins (eight receptions, 57 yards) right behind him.
Both Atwell and Fitzpatrick moved on to the NFL Draft, being drafted to the Rams and Titans, respectively. Ean Pfeifer and Roscoe Johnson both did not return to Louisville this season, while freshman receiver Christian Fitzpatrick transferred to Michigan State in the offseason.
Listed Starters: Jordan Watkins (X-receiver), Justin Marshall (Z-receiver), Braden Smith (slot); Marshon Ford (H-back)
All four players listed as the starters have had some game experience, especially Ford returning for his third season as Louisville’s starting tight end. But replacing the production that Fitzpatrick and Atwell had is likely going to be a group effort.
To Louisville’s credit, they have guys that can be as reliable as Fitzpatrick and Atwell were, and they’re all mostly young. Jordan Watkins should be a breakout candidate in 2021. He was primarily used as a returner last year, but got more playing time late in the year. He’s a speedster that can thrive as a playmaker in deep or short routes, and should be one of Louisville’s biggest weapons on offense.
Justin Marshall also returns, and should have a bigger role in the offense this season. He’s easily the biggest option that Louisville has among its receiver rotation (6’3″, 211 lbs.), and should be an important piece in the red zone or downfield plays. If he can put together some big performances, that will take pressure off Louisville to keep having to rely on 1-2 guys to keep the passing game in rhythm.
Braden Smith will almost certainly occupy the slot receiver position that Atwell thrived in. Smith isn’t the speedster that Atwell is, but he is sure-handed and can make plays at all three levels (especially evident from watching the WKU and Syracuse games). Smith and Watkins likely figure to lead the team in targets and yardage this season, but Smith will likely get more designed plays on screens and such.
Marshon Ford will be one of the best tight ends in the ACC this year, possibly among the best in the FBS in 2021. Ford is a crucial cog in Louisville’s run scheme and is a valuable red zone target for Malik Cunningham, especially in the short passing game. He is as reliable as it gets when his number is called, and I’d expect that trend to continue this season and possibly 2022 if he decides to return.
Key Reserves: Ahmari Huggins-Bruce, Josh Johnson, Shai Werts, Tyler Harrell; Francis Sherman & Isaac Martin (tight end)
The future for Louisville’s receiver group is going to have a lot of speed with Watkins and incoming freshman Ahmari Huggins-Bruce on the outside. Among Louisville’s 2021 recruits, Huggins-Bruce is the guy I’m expecting to be a big star in a Cardinals uniform. He is incredibly fast on the perimeter with smooth route running, and that really shows up on short hitch routes and bubble screens. He’s also got a great first step at the snap that makes him tough for defensive backs to press, so he can get separation off the line. Once he can add muscle to his frame, he should be able to add some physicality to his game and be even tougher to stop.
Josh Johnson should be able to log a lot of playing time this season, mainly as a slot receiver. He’s a great route runner that should be able to make plays underneath for Louisville, so I’m curious to see if the staff will use him as a safety valve of sorts. Braden Smith does have the capability to play outside as well, so some plays where they have Smith, Watkins and Johnson could be designed to where Johnson becomes an underneath option. That’s where I think Johnson is at his best, but I think he can be a solid intermediate threat as well.
I covered Shai Werts and how versatile he could be this season as a potential returner, but his potential doesn’t stop there. I think if anyone is going to replace the ‘gadget’ potential that Atwell had, it’s Werts. He was a former quarterback at Georgia Southern and has the athleticism to play inside or outside receiver, so I think he can be used for a reverse pass or trick plays. I doubt that he would be used for ‘wildcat’ type plays simply because Malik Cunningham can do most of the things Werts can, but this staff should find ways to get Werts some designed plays at least once every game.
The staff should also look to get Tyler Harrell more involved in the offense. Harrell is also wicked fast but hasn’t had the chance to showcase it on the field over the last three years. Much like Werts, it wouldn’t surprise me if the staff draws up designed plays to get Harrell the ball in space. But Harrell can be a vertical threat outside, and he could also play inside or outside as well.
The backup tight end spot is likely going to be a situational spot for Louisville, with Francis Sherman and Isaac Martin likely splitting time there and competing in practice for reps. Sherman and Martin can be used in heavy sets for Louisville for run blocking, but I think Sherman is currently ahead as far as pass catching goes.