If University of Louisville football fans could choose the ideal number of recruits they wished their team to sign for the coming season, the number would likely be 22 — 11 on offense and 11 on defense — to sweep out and replace the whole kit-and-kaboodle of non-performers who barely won two games last season.
And probably the new coach Scott Satterfield also wishes he had 22 brand-spanking-new prospects coming in to take a lead role with his first Louisville team.
But Satterfield, who previously coached very successfully at Appalachian State (N.C.), signed only four recruits in the prime December signing period for high school players coming to college.
The coach says he and his staff will try to add to the list in a second signing period, which ends in February. Maybe another 10-12 players. Though most of the top prospects go in December.
But Satterfield very much likes the four he did get — each at crucial positions. And he thinks he’s better off going for ideal recruits to set a standard for the future than settling for ones he didn’t much covet.
“Well, I would have liked to have more than two weeks from when I was hired to the first signing date,” says Satterfield with a smile. “But I do believe these four we have right here are exactly what we’re looking for, character-wise, academically, football-player wise.”
Of course, every incoming coach says those things, which go over well with press and public — good students, good people, good football players. (Though you won’t see many coaches passing up a big, stud star for a skinny bookworm.)
But Satterfield has already put his money where his mouth is, revoking several offers to players who had committed to previous coach Bobby Petrino — a move Satterfield knew would leave him with a small crop.
25 carries and a 27 ACT
One previous UofL commitment Satterfield did keep is Louisville Manual running back Aidan Robbins, who is 6-foot-3, 225 pounds — and also clicks off the qualities Satterfield says he prizes.
“Aidan Robbins was one of the first players I went to see when I was able (by NCAA rules) to go out, two Fridays ago,” says Satterfield, who built a “mid-major” (if we can borrow a word from college basketball) powerhouse at Appalachian State, before new UofL athletic director Vince Tyra lured him to Louisville.
A player like Robbins, who starred at a high-profile high school in a major city, was certainly no secret to Satterfield. But the 46-year-old coach was pleased with what he found when met Robbins.
“Great person, great personality, good size,” reports Satterfield. “He’s a big running back, 6-2, 6-3, around 225-230, has great hands, can catch the ball out of the backfield. Really a complete back.
“We feel like he’s a guy that could carry the ball 20-25 times a game and continue to take that load and get stronger as the game goes on,” Satterfield says.
Then the coach comes with the clincher on Robbins. “He brings a great personality to the room, hard worker, extremely intelligent, 27 ACT. So, again, he meets all the criteria we are looking for.”
And one probably shouldn’t underestimate the “personality” trait.
Because the locker room at Louisville might (could, maybe, might) be full of personalities who can play. And aching for a chance to succeed.
One reason Louisville might not need a slew of new recruits is it is well-stocked with underclassmen from a year ago. Plenty of returning freshmen, redshirt freshmen and sophomores. The roster is weighted with youth.
And the youth don’t look much different physically than previous UofL teams that achieved national ranking, won bowls and delivered stunning upsets. In other words: plenty of speed, plenty of athletic ability, good size … and did we mention speed?
In fact, we would almost bet the current roster boasts higher “speed figures” than the incoming freshmen.
But fast was obviously not enough. Something was not right in the locker room at UofL, or in the coaching offices of the Petrino regime. Fresh air was definitely called for. It cost Louisville $14 million to pay Petino’s severence fee. But that might be money Tyra needed to spend to clear a pool room stale atmosphere.
A quarterback with a book bag
Top teams need key players, and the key signee for Louisville could be Marietta, Ga., quarterback Evan Conley — who could quickly be called upon to play.
“There’s a need at quarterback, so we addressed that with Evan Conley, a player who (had) committed to us at Appalachian State,” says Satterfield.
“We saw him this summer, he came to our camp (at Appalachian State), and coach (Frank) Ponce saw him play live this fall,” he continues. “Can throw it, can run it, 3.8 GPA, very intelligent player … has his book bag on his shoulders all the time, ready to go to work.”
Assistant coach Ponce, who groomed two top quarterbacks at Appalachian State, says it’s paramount to recruit the right person at quarterback.
“You can’t miss, if you do it’s going to set you back a little bit,” says Ponce, who will also be Louisville’s co-offensive coordinator. “We try to do our best in evaluating the kids and doing our homework. What kind of character they have is the biggest thing.
“Obviously,” Ponce explains, “a lot of guys can throw the ball, run the ball. We see them. But the main thing is to find the ones that can lead on the field, you know, lead by example. They’re going to be the guys that make their teammates better.”
Ponce says he found Conley would arrive early to watch film and ask questions in high school. And that Conley’s high school coach was interested in learning what Appalachian State was doing. How things worked in college.
Satterfield notes that Conley’s Kell High played at the top level in Georgia, in which, he says, “every single week you’re playing against future Division I power players.”
Satterfield says Conley is 6-2, rather than the quarterback prototype 6-5, but can make all the throws, including across field — and also has mobility.
“We like to have guys that aren’t stiffs in the backfield,” says Satterfield. “We want guys to be able to get out of trouble … run around a little bit.”
But mostly they pass.
A downhill bumper
Louisville’s other two signees include linebacker Dorian Jones and offensive lineman Zach Williamson.
Satterfield calls Jones a “downhill bumper,” which is a new term for us, but pretty colorful. And right to the point for an aspiring inside linebacker. Sam Huff style — downhill bumper.
The fourth signee, Zach Williamson, is a tall, 6-6, 298-pound offensive tackle from Huntington, W.Va. — a previous Petrino commitment. Williamson was a 2018 All-Stater with offers from Penn State, West Virginia and Kentucky.
A good prospect, in other words, and likely just the first of many big linemen Satterfield will be recruiting to get the running game going and shore up pass protection.
Not only have the Cardinals run low on their stock of interior big men, but the line has been one of the team’s weakest areas — racking up more “illegal procedure” penalties, it seemed, than first downs. Linemen moving before the snap is a problem that goes back several seasons.
The very notion of which astounds new offensive line coach Dwayne Ledford.
“You shouldn’t get a pre-snap penalty,” says Ledford. “There’s not an excuse for that.”
He means, like none.
Ledford, who played in the NFL, rejoins Satterfield after spending recent seasons building a top-notch offensive line at North Carolina State. A player he coached, Garrett Bradbury, won the Dave Rimington Trophy as the nation’s top center, and North Carolina State led the Atlantic Coast Conference in fewest quarterback “sacks” allowed the last two seasons.
Which would be fabulous for Louisville.
Ledford acknowledges that top offensive lines develop over time. Usually several seasons. But he feels he can work with what Louisville has coming back, including 6-7, 340-pound, junior-to-be Louisville tackle Mekhi Becton.
But the question is desire.
“Are they willing to put in that kind of work? — and that’s just being honest about it,” says Ledford.
“Everywhere we’ve been, we’ve been able to do it with what we had there on the roster previously,” he says. “But those guys worked at it, and worked hard at it. They had a willingness to do it.”
Ledford believes a top line has a look, “What you’re supposed to look like,” he calls it.
And a kind of teamwork thing that’s special to a big man’s world.
“Doing it together with each other,” says Ledford. “Really buying into the whole brotherhood of it’s more about the guy next to me, not me as an individual. The biggest issue when you come in (to a new school,) is getting those guys to forge and form those relationships with one another.”
So that, one imagines, when new recruits arrive they’ve got a fraternity, a tradition, to join.
We’d like more than an hour to tell the story
Of course, team building requires a well-established recruiting system to find the right pieces for future teams.
Satterfield notes that in his few days visiting recruits since signing to coach Louisville, he and his staff came up against a clock tick-tocking out of time. A hastily arranged hour or so with a recruit and his family.
“You feel like you’re talking a mile a minute, a hundred miles an hour, trying to tell them everything about you,” he says.
Better to build the tale over time.
“Recruiting starts, you’ve got to be a year, year-and-a-half in advance,” says Satterfield. “So this spring, this February and March, we’ll have guys unofficially on campus. We’ll build relationships so that by the time the season starts in the fall (for UofL and the high school senior recruits), they’ll love it, they’ll commit — and then it’s just a matter of holding on until we get to Dec. 1.
“That way, in January, you’re actually moving on to the next class.”