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"Creating that chemistry"

CRAWFORD | Entering Year No. 3 at Louisville, where to stand on Scott Satterfield?

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LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) -- This is the pace of college football, and just about everything else, here in the 2020s.

Two years ago, Scott Satterfield was the toast of the Atlantic Coast Conference. He took the train wreck that was Louisville football, and like some kind of Mission Impossible character, climbed through the wreckage left behind by Bobby Petrino, grabbed the controls and saved the program from total derailment.

Not only that, but the Cardinals won eight games, including a win over Mississippi State in the Music City Bowl, and Satterfield was named ACC Coach of the Year, and was a candidate for national coach of the year.

Twelve months after being the toast of the ACC, Satterfield felt like toast. After a season of COVID casualties and too many turnovers, the Cardinals finished 4-7, and everyone asked, "Where is the progress?"

And in some ways, his offseason has been worse than the season. His staff lost four coaches, including a mainstay, offensive coordinator and offensive line coach Dwayne Ledford. Satterfield was roasted locally and nationally for not only for an ill-advised flirtation with South Carolina, but for an awkward response to it.

Whatever momentum had been built in Satterfield's first season was lost. And a lot of the preseason coverage for 2021 has showed it. That's the backdrop against which Satterfield arrived at 2021 ACC Media Days on Thursday.

Some of those things are red flags. There's some grumbling about recruiting rankings. Louisville fans have whiplash over their coaches seeking greener pastures.

But a closer look at last season shows that some of the struggles weren't the result of faulty coaching. Offensively, Satterfield in his first season was able to craft a solid offensive attack behind NFL-caliber offensive lineman Mekhi Becton. Without him, the front was far less formidable, and especially early in the season in a lopsided loss to Miami and a close road loss at Pittsburgh, it showed.

Louisville played three of its first five games against ranked opponents, and lost all of them, though it was within one score of winning at Pittsburgh and again at Notre Dame.

Beyond that, bad luck hit with COVID. The Cardinals were missing four defensive linemen and nine players overall in a loss to Virginia Tech, a game in which they fought back from double-digit deficits twice. They were without seven starters the next game at Virginia, including top receiver TuTu Atwell, top two running backs Javian Hawkins and Hassan Hall, defensive linemen YaYa Diaby, Derek Dorsey and Tabarius Peterson and cornerback Chandler Jones.

They stopped Virginia on its first series, then drove deep into Cavalier territory before QB Malik Cunningham threw an interception that was returned 84 yards for a TD. Still, Louisville was driving in the fourth quarter, down 21-17, when Cunningham got loose on a 27-yard run. He sprinted into Virginia territory, was hit, and tried to spin away for more yards. He stayed up just long enough to be stripped of the football, and Virginia later turned that turnover into a touchdown. A 14-point loss, with 14 points given away on turnovers.

People blamed Cunningham for the late fumble. Why was he so intent on getting more yards? Well, he was without Atwell, and Hawkins, and Hall. Where else was he going to turn?

Louisville played at least one game last year that it probably could've opted out of, but Satterfield decided to play it anyway, because he said the healthy players on the team deserved the chance to get out onto the football field. In the midst of a pandemic, a good coach can't be worried about wins and losses with every decision.

People need to remember that.

Satterfield told his players in the midst of the illness and turnovers and losses fumbled away and discouragement of fans -- not to mention the pandemic, "This adversity is scarring us down, and it's going to make us a better program and a better team as we move forward, and we'll reap the benefits of it. We've just got to continue working hard. If we stop turning the ball over, we'll have a great chance to win. We're going to continue to work on it."

It never quite got fixed. Three turnovers cost Louisville a game at Boston College, including a batted ball interception by an offensive lineman that sealed the win.

Still, if anyone doubted the spirit of Satterfield's players, on Senior Day at home, with only three wins to their credit all season, they went into a game as 2-point favorites against Wake Forest and beat the Demon Deacons 45-21. They played with enthusiasm and effort.

Almost lost in the disappointment over the record was that through all the adversity of last season, players opting out and getting sick and all of the turnovers, forced and unforced, there was still good morale among the players and still enough resilience to win two of the season's final three games.

Nobody checked out. And that is to Satterfield's credit, and in direct contrast to what happened at Louisville in 2018.

There's no question the program slipped a bit in 2020, but probably not as far as people thought.

Now, 2021 provides an even greater test. Without Atwell, and Hawkins, and so many who have made plays over the past two seasons, what can Louisville build without those name-brand talents?

Expectations around the league are low. CBS Sports ranked Satterfield, one season removed from being ACC Coach of the Year with the team with the most improvement in the country from the previous season, 11th out of 14 ACC coaches.

Satterfield doesn't fire back on those things. He's just hoping that last year's freakish turnover nightmare is over.

The things he has always done, he'll continue to do. When Satterfield took over, he vowed to build the program by loving his players and building a culture, and none of that stopped last season, even during adversity. Heading into last season, he'd had a 1,000-yard rusher for nine straight seasons, "and last year (Javian) Hawkins was on track. I feel confident we'll have a 1,000-yard rusher."

And he's hoping that a traditional offseason will bring back the form that made the Cardinals a pleasant surprise in 2019.

"We lost four games by single digits last season," Satterfield said at ACC Media Days on Tuesday. "In 2019, we won them. I think part of that is in the offseason, creating that chemistry, and playing for each other. We didn't have that the year before. This year we've been able to get that. I just think it gives you an opportunity to win those close games. We've got to win the turnover battle, we all know that. But there's certain plays throughout a game that come up, that if you care about your brother beside you, you give everything you have and end up making that play. I think that's what we lacked last year and I think we'll have it this year, and I'm excited to see them get out there and do that."

Nobody expected Satterfield to win 8 games, including a bowl, in his first season. Nor did anyone expect last season's Worst Case Scenario Handbook to play out.

But if I'd said Satterfield would be 12-12 after his first two seasons, most people would've said, "That sounds about right, and let's see what he does in his third."

Satterfield has rebuilt the culture at Louisville. Last season, disappointing as it was, did nothing to diminish that. Now he has to show he can turn that into a winner consistently in the ACC. His success or failure to do that will be the storyline of Year No. 3.

"A lot of positives going into this year," Satterfield said Thursday. "Defense is continuing to get better. Offensively guys have a great grasp of what we're doing on offense. We have a lot of talented players that are going to be able to play. Offensive line I think is the most depth we've ever had since we've been there, at least eight guys that can go in and play at a high level. I'm excited about what we're able to come this year and what we'll be able to play in this league."

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