By Rick Bozich
WDRB Sports

CHARLOTTE, N.C. (WDRB) -- I engaged Louisville football coach Bobby Petrino in small talk before Petrino’s official media session during the Atlantic Coast Conference Kickoff event at the Westin Hotel on Thursday.
 

He said his favorite summer activity was enjoying his grandchildren. He said that he loved the cover of the team’s media guide that featured Triple Crown winner Justify with three Cardinals’ receivers.

Then I told Petrino that it did not seem as if media members here were gaga about his team. No Lamar Jackson. No buzzzz. Perhaps the Cardinals were being overlooked.

A rival ACC coach and several media guys were standing within several feet. Petrino’s eyes looked as if he was eager to answer, but he told me he’d talk about that topic later.

Petrino did. And Petrino agreed.

Petrino said he believed this will be the fastest college team he has coached. He said he believed the defense will improve because of another season of experience, the arrival of talented transfers and a change at defensive coordinator.

But here is the line that should resonate from Tallahassee to Boston. Petrino said that he believed the Louisville offense will be better without the guy who was the best offensive player in college football the last two seasons — Jackson, the team’s irrepressible quarterback.

His replacement is Jawon “Puma” Pass, a mammoth, 6-foot-4-inch, 231-pound redshirt sophomore with 23 career completions.

“I expect us to be better,” Petrino said. “I expect us to be more balanced, the ability to get more guys involved, particularly in the running game. I really like our receiving corps coming back. I really think it's one of the strongest corps coming back.”

I wondered if I could get a second endorsement on that outlook.

No problem.

“I feel like the offense will be a lot better this year with having a more balanced attack,” said Jon Greenard, a defensive end/linebacker.

Anybody else want to be heard?

“People aren’t really feeling us because of the loss of Lamar,” U of L receiver Jaylen Smith said. “People don’t understand how good Puma is.”

Reasonable people will be tempted to file this under July Happy Talk, stuff people write in the middle of the summer when there are more than six weeks to burn until the opening game.

Something to start a conversation. A link for somebody to save and post as a Freezing Cold Take by October. Being outlandish for the sake of being outlandish.

Could happen.

Louisville and Pass could be thrown off Space Mountain by the Alabama defense when the Cardinals open against Nick Saban and his defending national champions in Orlando on Sept. 1. Boston College, Syracuse, Wake Forest and North Carolina State have all improved in the ACC Atlantic.

Jackson finished second in America in total offense when he won the Heisman Trophy in 2016 and then upgraded to first last season when he was third in the voting. When in doubt, give it to Lamar and watch the magic unfold.

But this appears to be the best offensive line Petrino has developed during his second five-season run at Louisville. This is year three for offensive line coach Mike Summers. Four starters return. Plus. Major plus.

National college football analyst Phil Steele ranks Louisville’s receivers the best group in the ACC as well as the 10th best in the nation.

Smith, Dez Fitzpatrick and Seth Dawkins all caught at least 42 passes last season with a yards per completion average of 15.29 yards or better. They combined for 20 touchdowns. They’re all at least 6-2 and can run.

Petrino said that he believes he has three tight ends who will contribute. The running backs should benefit from the experience of the offensive line and the improved health of Dae Williams and Colin Wilson.

Anything else?

Just the emergence of Pass, who earned powerful endorsements from Petrino, Greenard and Smith.

Petrino said that in two seasons at Louisville, Pass never hinted that he was considering a transfer even as Jackson dominated all the snaps. That showed a maturity that is not typical of 4-star recruits in today’s culture.

He watched. He learned. He improved. Pass is more tested than Jackson was when he took over as a freshman in 2015.

Petrino said that Pass threw the ball with consistent velocity. Jackson had a terrific arm. That helped him make all the throws, but sometimes the throws arrived with more heat than receivers expected.

Smith agreed and warned that Pass can do more than simply, well, pass.

“Puma throws a beautiful ball,” Smith said. ”He stands up tall in the pocket. He follows through. He does the little things right. That’s what makes him good. He throws a very good crossing route. Anything down the middle, anything deep, he has very smooth touch on the ball.

“A lot of people don’t know that Puma is also a threat to run. He’s a little bit bigger. He’s more of a pocket passer. Puma is very agile, and he’s very mobile. I think they’ll still have to keep him honest back there.“

Demeanor?

They’re different. That’s tougher to evaluate that arm strength or touch. Difficult to say which guy will be a more effective leader. But they’re different.

“Lamar was like he was ready to go, let’s get it,” Smith said. “Puma was more like, ‘Let’s go.’ He’s calm.

“That’s how he approaches it. He walks to the line of scrimmage. Some people might think he’s nervous. I don’t know what people think. The way he approaches everything is so calm that it’s scary. You don’t know if it’s a good calm or he’s nervous inside. But I like it.”

A better offense without the best offensive player in the game?

College football will be watching.

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