With the 2017-18 college football regular season coming to an end and award season just around the corner, it seemed fitting to look back at the season that was for the Louisville Cardinals and give out season awards.
While the Louisville record (8-4) wasn’t what anyone had hoped for coming into the season, especially with the returning Heisman Trophy winner and most dynamic college football player of all time returning, the offense came out and put on a show every single week. Behind the prolific play of Lamar Jackson, Jaylen Smith, Malik WIlliams and others, Louisville was able to finish 3rd in the nation in total offense, putting on a show for Louisville fans each and every week. Again, it wasn’t what anyone around the program was expecting as far as success goes, but the players deserve a lot of praise and recognition for their play and hard work. In a two part series we’ll hand six awards on each side of the ball.
Let’s start with the offense
Most Valuable Player – Lamar Jackson, Junior
Season Stats: 3489 Passing Yards, 25 TDs, 6 INT’s, 1443 Rushing Yards, 17 TDs
Is there any question who the MVP of Louisville’s offense was? There has never been anybody like Lamar Jackson to play at the University of Louisville (hell in college football) and there never will be ever again. He was so good it was hard to even appreciate it. What he did on a weekly basis was ridiculous. For the past 3 years we’ve watched Lamar Jackson evolve from a raw freakish athlete with crazy arm strength, who had zero ability to read a defense or a football game develop into a smooth, smart and aware quarterback who has the ability to make any type of throw, anywhere on the field, while being able to run like a running back and make the nation’s best defenses look silly.
I count six tackles that Lamar Jackson evaded pic.twitter.com/8Xu4I2r2LZ
— Bryan Fischer (@BryanDFischer) November 25, 2017
— LouisvilleFootball (@UofLFootball) November 19, 2017
While this season was a struggle at times because of the ineptitude on the defensive side of the ball, you never thought that this team was out of reach because of the talent that was on the other side of the ball at quarterback. Jackson finished the season 10th in the nation in passing, as well as 10th in the nation in rushing and somehow had 300 yards of total offense in every single game this season while accounting for 230 total first downs. When there was no running game from the halfbacks, Lamar got outside of the pocket and ran the ball. When the wide receivers couldn’t get open, Lamar Jackson got them open. When the offensive line couldn’t contain blocks, Lamar Jackson scrambled and made plays with his feet. Jackson somehow was able to will this Louisville team to victory time and time again this season. It was absolutely unreal to watch and at times it didn’t feel real. While it looks like Lamar Jackson likely won’t get the chance to repeat as Heisman Trophy winner, becoming the first ever two-time ACC Player of the Year and ACC Offensive Player of the Year is downright special. No matter how many statistics I throw out, or how many awards and accolades I list, it still doesn’t tell the story of how great Lamar Jackson has been in his career, not only on the field but off it as well. (If you’ve stuck around post game you’ve seen Lamar Jackson talking to fans and even shaking hands with his little fans) As a Louisville fan I know what I’ve gotten to experience this season was absolutely special, and even with a 8-4 record, I’ll cherish what I’ve watched for the rest of my life.
Runner Up: Jaylen Smith
Third Place: Dez Fitzpatrick
Most Improved Player – Jaylen Smith, WR, Junior
Season Statistics: 53 Receptions, 873 Receiving Yards, 6 Touchdowns
As a sophomore in 2016, Jaylen Smith quickly became one of Lamar Jackson’s go-to deep threats, catching at least one 20 yard pass in nine games. Though Smith finished fourth in receiving with 27 receptions, 599 yards, and 6 touchdowns, he was never relied upon for much more then stretching defenses over the top (only two games with more than two receptions in 2016-17). No Louisville player had a more impressive statistical jump this past season than Jaylen Smith, whose improvement was a huge reason the Cardinals offense was able to finish in the top three in the nation. Smith finished the regular season with 53 catches, 873 yards, 6 touchdowns, and a staggering 16.5 yards per catch, earning All-ACC first team honors, even after missing three games with a wrist injury suffered against Clemson. From the outset of the season it became obvious that Jaylen Smith was the target that Lamar Jackson could always rely on to make a big play, even as Jackson did a great job of spreading the ball out to the plethora of Louisville wide receivers. Smith broke a Louisville receiving record through two games, totaling 300 yards on 17 receptions and 1 touchdown, including a 9 catch, 183 receiving yard performance against North Carolina. After missing a few games due to injury Smith would go on to have huge games against Boston College and Virginia, including an incredible one handed touchdown catch in the back of the endzone that could be pointed to as a momentum changer in Louisville’s season. From his sophomore season to his junior season Jaylen Smith was able to go from a receiver who was only looked to for a big play down the field, to one of the nation’s most dependable playmakers who could consistently get you 100 yards and a touchdown on any given night.
Runner Up: Malik Williams
Third Place: Lamar Jackson
Best Newcomer – Dez Fitzpatrick – WR, RS Freshman
Season Statistics: 45 Receptions, 699 Receiving Yards, 9 Touchdowns
This was a really close call for me between Dez Fitzpatrick and offensive tackle Mekhi Becton, who was a huge part of Lamar Jackson’s success this season starting at the right tackle position on a much improved offensive line. However, I went with Dez Fitzpatrick who was flat out special. Let’s get this straight, Dez “SixPatrick” as he has been appropriately nicknamed this season, as all he did was put up six points just about every time he touched the ball, is going to be a future NFL first round pick. Fitzpatrick finished his first college football season with nine receiving touchdowns which not only led the team but also broke a Louisville football record for the most caught by a freshman in school history, and was second in overall receiving statistics behind Jaylen Smith.
Louisville fans got a glimpse at just how special Fitzpatrick was going to be during the first two games of the season against Purdue and North Carolina where he absolutely went off, going for 4 receptions for 98 yards and a touchdown and 4 receptions and 78 yards and two touchdowns respectively. Some freshman have big games and then drop off the map but Fitzpatrick didn’t do that, he continued to have huge games throughout the season including 10 receptions for 134 yards against North Carolina State, 7 receptions for 127 yards against Boston College, and 2 receptions for 39 yards and 2 touchdowns in his first Governor’s cup matchup against Kentucky. Fitzpatrick seemed to struggle against experienced corners (i.e, FSU & Virginia) and disappeared other times, but as a freshman you can often chalk that up to inexperience. The great news is that Louisville will be in a good place offensively with a special talent like “Sixpatrick” coming back for his sophomore season in 2018-19.
Runner Up: Mekhi Becton
Third Place: Dae Williams
Comeback Player of the Year – Dae Williams
Season Statistics: 35 Carries, 232 Rushing Yards, 3 Touchdowns
After being under recruited as a 2 star half back out of Oklahoma and redshirting his first year at UofL, a lot of the fans and people around the program didn’t know much about Dae Williams. But at 6’2, 225 pounds his physical running style paired with his speed & quickness was something the coaches couldn’t stop raving about through the first few weeks of spring practice. Even with converted senior running back Reggie Bonnafon and senior Malik Williams coming back for their final season and expected to play big roles in the Louisville offense, it seemed as if Dae Williams was going to force the coaching staffs hand in giving him a hefty share of carries come the regular season. That was until he went down with a torn ACL in the latter part of April. The recovery time from a torn ACL is usually anywhere from 8 to 12 months, which would have left Williams put for his second straight season and left Louisville with a lot of question marks at a position where they were already extremely thin. Thankfully for Louisville, Dae Williams who not only is a freak athlete but was dedicated to making it back in the 2017-18 season, and to the shock of most Louisville fans, was able to return midway through the season giving Louisville’s struggling running game a much needed boost. Dae Williams took the field as a Louisville Cardinal for the first time against Florida State, and right away lived up to the hype from spring practice. Williams received 5 carries, going for 41 yards, 25 of those coming on a touchdown run that put Louisville up 28-14.
DAE WILLIAMS pic.twitter.com/locEsgN2yf
— Barstool Louisville (@BarstoolCards) October 21, 2017
While probably being closer to 80-85% then a full 100%, Williams played a big role in the Louisville running back rotation down the stretch of the season. The improved running game was a huge reason why the Cards were able to finish strong, ending the year on a three game winning streak. In wins against Virginia, Syracuse, and Kentucky, Williams carried 30 times for 189 yards, and 2 touchdowns. It’s incredible that Dae Williams was able to comeback in just six months to contribute at an extremely high level from an injury that normally takes twice the amount of recovery time.
Runner Up: Malik Williams
Third Place: Reggie Bonnafon
Best Play of The Season – Jaylen Smith One Handed End Zone Grab
Do I even need to go into detail? Just watch it. When it’s all said and done, it could be one of the top five plays of the entire 2017-18 college football season. The play was great on its own, but with a little context it becomes a little more special to Louisville’s season.
At the time of the touchdown catch, Louisville was up 24-14 in the later parts of the third quarter against Virginia, in a game that was desperately needed to be won. UofL was just two weeks removed from giving up over 600 yards of total offense and taking a beatdown from lowly Wake Forest and Virginia was the opponent Louisville needed to keep their season from going completely down the drain.
Louisville got going early in the game going up 17-7 but lost momentum going into the second half due to bad clock management. Coming out of the half Louisville forced a Virginia punt, and was able to drive 80 yards down the field, scoring on a 24 yard Lamar Jackson – Jaylen Smith connection, going up 24-14. After forcing another three and out Louisville got the ball back on the 41 yard line. After three straight run plays put Louisville into Virginia territory (35 yard line) it was time for the best play of the season.
Out of the shotgun formation on a five step drop back Jackson initially looked out left for Seth Dawkins on a comeback route, but Virginia had great coverage on his hot read. Showing his development as a passer, Jackson moved to his second read which was a streaking Jaylen Smith, who had his man beat by five or six yards, while doing this Jackson had pressure coming from the Virginia defensive line. Instead of scrambling out of the pocket, Jackson displayed great pocket awareness by dropping back two extra steps, then taking another step up into the pocket (all with his eyes down field) before launching a bomb into the endzone over the head of Jaylen Smith. While the pass was quite a bit ahead of his receiver, Smith was able to get Odell Beckham like extension and grab the ball with his right hand, corralling the touchdown and essentially putting the game away for Louisville. And just like that Jaylen Smith and Lamar Jackson combined for the best play of the 2017-18 Louisville football season.
Runner Up: 75 Yard Touchdown Pass to Jaylen Smith Vs. North Carolina
Third Place: Seth Dawkins Stiff Arm’s North Carolina Defender
When someone tells me they are a Kentucky fan pic.twitter.com/KSK4cWmACZ
— Barstool Louisville (@BarstoolCards) September 9, 2017
Best Moment – Reggie Bonnafon’s 2 TD Performance On Senior Day
Since committing to the Cards back in 2014 the Louisville product out of Trinity has been through a lot both on and off the field as a Louisville Cardinal. After three position switches Bonnafon finally settled in at running back in his final season. Bonnafon started in the backfield most of the year, but struggled to get going due to inexperience at the position and because of the play of guys like Malik Williams & Dae Williams. So when Bonnafon was able to put up one of his biggest performances of the season on senior day in what was his final career game at Papa John’s Cardinal Stadium, it made for a very special day. His first touchdown came in the second quarter when he took a pitch from Lamar Jackson 33 yards to the end zone. Slowly you heard the “Reggie” chants begin to pour out from the fans that stuck it out in the bad weather. The second touchdown came on a short pass out of the backfield from Jackson that Bonnafon took 34 yards to the endzone putting the game completely out of reach for Louisville and again chants of “Reggie, Reggie, Reggie” rang out even louder throughout Papa John’s Cardinal Stadium” letting #7 know just how appreciative the fans were of his sacrifice to the program throughout his four years. Being moved from quarterback to wide receiver and finally to running back, from being a starter, to being moved to a backup, through it all, whatever was asked by the coaching staff Bonnafon always displayed a special type of attitude, making Bonnafon’s spectacular performance against Syracuse on senior day even more fitting.
Runner Up: Blanton Creque’s Game Winning Field Goal Over Florida State
Third Place: Dae Williams Scores Touchdown In First Game Back From ACL Tear
Jacob Lane joined The Cardinal Connect in August of 2017 after previously writing for CardinalSports.com on the Rivals Network. Jacob covers anything and everything Louisville Cardinals. Follow him on Twitter @Jacob_Lane08