After adversity-filled month, Louisville football's youth shined in rout of Syracuse
Three weeks ago, Marvin Dallas left the field against Florida State with what Scott Satterfield described as a “gruesome” injury.
He injured his thumb, but when he walked off the field, the wound was exposed and he had damage inside. The freshman outside linebacker was forced to have surgery, but wanted to play despite being in a cast.
Louisville sat him for a few weeks, but he returned to practice this week and made one of the biggest plays of Friday’s 30-0 win over Syracuse.
With Louisville taking a 6-0 lead on a James Turner field goal, Dallas recovered a fumble on the ensuing kickoff.
"That was awesome to see him out there. He has really come on in special teams, just flying down the field,” Satterfield said.
There’s more to that sequence. The fumble was forced by fellow freshman and Louisville native Jordan Watkins. Watkins, a wide receiver, also caught all four of his targets for 34 yards.
Friday’s game was won because of the defense, pitching its first shutout against a Power 5 team since 2004. But throughout the game there were freshmen, or players with little game experience, making plays on the field.
Whether that was Dallas and Watkins or wide receiver Braden Smith, running back Jalen Mitchell or linebacker KJ Cloyd. Louisville went all in on its youth on Friday and in many ways showed that the future is bright at Louisville if the young players continue to develop.
“We have some good young football players and they are going to get better and better as they continue throughout the rest of this season,” Satterfield said. “But this also propels them into the offseason to be that much more hungry to go work in the weight room and indoors during the winter to do all the things that will make them better players.”
Watkins earned his first start of the year paired with Roscoe Johnson, the graduate transfer from NC State. Ramon Puryear started his third straight game at defensive end, as well.
Cloyd, a hard-hitting junior college transfer at linebacker, played early and often and finished with three tackles. Redshirt junior Josh Johnson recorded his first catches of the season, four for 40 yards. With Marshon Ford out, tight end Duane Martin had two catches for 27 yards and freshman Josh Lifson found the field as well.
Every team plans to play young players at the end of the season, especially if they are out of the running in the conference like Louisville is. Syracuse did the same, mainly because of injuries, though. But Louisville received good production from many of those players and Satterfield was encouraged by that.
"There were some big plays tonight,” Satterfield said. “There were a lot of firsts from a lot of guys. Got to play all three quarterbacks and they completed some balls as well and got to play a lot of guys on the defensive side as well.”
In the last month, Louisville, especially on the defensive end, was forced to put everyone on the field. Dealing with a COVID-19 outbreak forced the younger and less experienced players to gain valuable reps in games, but also practice.
During that month, defensive tackle Jared Goldwire said he saw their confidence grow.
"A lot of the younger defensive linemen have had to step up. Their study habits, work ethic increased exponentially,” Goldwire said. “It was a great thing to see this month just how they’ve improved and matured while the older dudes were out.”
That was on full display against the Orange.
Maybe the most impressive of those players was Mitchell. The Florida native was the fourth running back in Louisville’s rotation for much of the season, but found a role last week with Javian Hawkins and Hassan Hall out.
That turned into more carries with Hawkins opting out, even with Hall back, and Mitchell took advantage with 11 carries, 46 yards and his first career touchdown. He showed a burst hitting the hole and his ability to catch the ball out of the backfield with three receptions for 24 yards, including a diving catch in the redzone.
Maurice Burkley, who started in place of Hawkins, said Mitchell shined on Friday because of the work he puts in daily.
"He always does the little things correct and does more work than anything,” Burkley said. “He pushes himself to the limit. His future is going to be very bright for sure.”
If Louisville is going to make a bowl game, and that is still a slight possibility if it wins out to reach five wins on the season, it won’t be because the young players stood out against a bad Syracuse team.
But their ability to gain vital experience and confidence the last month and put it on display against the Orange bodes well for the future.
"Those guys have been putting in work,” quarterback Malik Cunningham said.