Louisville’s Defense has been a Top 25 unit every year dating back to 2010. During that time the Cards have put 12 defensive players into the NFL Draft. Bobby Petrino may be known as an offensive coach, but Louisville’s brand during this decade has been built around defense. That will continue to be the case this year as the Cards brought back Keith Kelsey, Devonte Fields, DeAngelo Brown & Josh Harvey-Clemons for their senior seasons.
|Total Defense||Yards Allowed (Rank)|
|Defensive NFL Draft Picks||Name (RD)|
|2011||Johnny Patrick (3rd)|
|2012||Greg Scruggs (7th)|
|2014||Calvin Pryor (1st)|
|Marcus Smith (1st)|
|Preston Brown (3rd)|
|2015||Lorenzo Mauldin (3rd)|
|James Sample (4th)|
|Deiontrez Mount (6th)|
|Charles Gaines (6th)|
|BJ Dubose (6th)|
|Gerod Holliman (7th)|
|2016||Sheldon Rankins (1st proj)|
Here is what we learned during the Spring Practices we were able to observe.
Evaluating defense in non-contact environments is difficult, particularly when trying to evaluate run defense effectiveness. We can get a good sense of pass rush and given that a great deal of personnel returns from last season it’s reasonable that we know what to expect on the Defensive Line.
Also, who plays with the #1 group here largely depends on package and situation. If we’ve learned anything from watching a Todd Grantham defense it’s that players rarely stick to one spot or role, which is great for the player & the Cardinal defense…..but much more difficult to write about when categorizing players. So keep that in mind when reading these.
DeAngelo Brown is the center piece of the Louisville Defensive Line at Nose Guard. Brown has been phenomenal in the middle of the Louisville defense and is what every coach running the 3-4 would like to have to begin building out their plan. Brown has been limited during Spring but hasn’t been held out entirely. That’s given opportunity to players like Kyle Shortridge and Johnny Richardson to play more reps inside.
While DeAngelo is almost primarily a Nose Guard, Richardson & Shortridge are not and can play outside of the Nose position on the end. This will happen whenever the Cards & Grantham decide to go to their PESO defense which requires bigger defensive ends than usual. Shortridge really took steps forward at the end of 2015 and I expect the RS-Junior to have a big year. Additionally Johnny Richardson fought after an injury during camp to get back on the field and was huge late in the year for the Cards, particularly in the Kentucky game when Grantham had no choice but use the PESO package. Richardson appears to be Louisville’s largest defender and moves very well for his size. Johnny’s versatility is also a big time weapon.
Drew Bailey on the other hand will always be on the outside at Defensive End. Bailey has the task of try to replace Sheldon Rankins (who is projected to be a Top 15 Selection in this month’s NFL Draft). Bailey came in and made an impact & played a lot of snaps despite playing behind Rankins. This is Bailey’s 1st Spring with the Cards and he’s getting a lot of run with the #1 group, but this isn’t a spot that is likely to be dominated by an individual player like Rankins a year ago.
Fans should fully expect to see JUCO Chris Williams make an impact this summer. So far this Spring Williams is with the #2 group as he has been on campus just 3 months. Chris was the Defensive MVP of the JUCO National Championship game, was highly recruited out of the same high school as Shaq Wiggins & Ja’Quay Savage and signed with Ole Miss originally. It’s a matter of time before Williams gets going as a Cardinal, but we’ll allow him time to get acclimated to the program.
We also expect a great deal out of G.G. Robinson who is also running with the #2 group. G.G. is B-I-G and it is clear why he was so hotly recruited out of high school. This is also Robinson’s 1st Spring with the Cards after redshirting the 2015 season. There is no doubt that G.G. will be a part of the rotation this year and we’re excited to see him in a game environment on Saturday for the Spring game.
Kordell Slater is a true freshman who graduated in December & enrolled in January and is participating in Spring drills. Slater looks the part and is adjusting to college football this Spring. This time spent will do well for him as he moves into summer & eventually Fall Camp.
Right now the #1 rotation appears to be DeAngelo Brown, Drew Bailey, and Johnny Richardson (or an OLB, we’ll get to that in the next section).
Post-Spring Thoughts for Defensive Line: We pretty much know what to expect from Louisville’s starting defensive line. What we don’t know yet is what level of depth they can depend on OR if anyone of the newcomers will challenge for a starting role this August. DeAngelo Brown, Kyle Shortridge, Drew Bailey & Johnny Richardson is a good CORE, but UofL is going to need either Chris Williams OR G.G. Robinson to be ready to play and perhaps BOTH.
The Cards will also get some help from incoming freshman Caleb Tillman and Michael Boykin. Both players possess the size to play early (like Kordell Slater) but until they arrive on campus it will be impossible to know their readiness. Eventually though, all 3 true freshman will be key pieces to the UofL D-Line.
This group is lead by senior Keith Kelsey in the middle who returns after a 107 tackle season in 2015. Kelsey was active in every practice we observed but has been a little banged up. Keith looks more muscular than we saw him last in December and he’s working to build on his 2nd Team ALL-ACC Junior Season. Kelsey is one of the main leaders of the team, not to mention the leader of the defense and his unit.
Stacy Thomas looks to fill the void of the beloved James Burgess. Stacy filled in aptly in the Music City Bowl after Burgess’ targeting ejection in what has become a blessing in disguise as Thomas gained valuable experience for 2016. Stacy has been in the mix of countless special teams plays and is the heir apparent to win the spot at MO. We like the space that Thomas covers and we think he can step in and make plays on the ball in the passing game as well as stop the run. A&M ran directly at Stacy for a TD when Josh Harvey-Clemons injured Stacy 2 plays prior on a tackle. Thomas needs to learn to sub himself out there and not put himself in that spot. That type of situational awareness is perhaps where Thomas needs to grow, but the kid can play.
Beyond Keith Kelsey & Stacy Thomas on the inside we have Isaac Stewart & Amonte Caban. Stewart played in critical situations a year ago and has developed his body a little since last fall. Stewart will back up Kelsey and appears to be ready in the run game, but does need to work on some of his coverages. It’s clear that he is a willing learner. Amonte Caban has REALLY gotten a lot bigger adding 22 lbs from his listed weight last fall to the Spring roster. Caban can cover a lot of ground and while he may not be with the #1 group yet he’s going to make his presence felt on Special Teams right away and fans can be confident with his game when called upon. The question for both of these guys that we won’t know until the Spring Game is tackling ability. So we are excited to see that on Saturday.
On the outside Louisville has its two starters from last year back in Trevon Young & Devonte Fields……..but Young has missed the Spring following his hip injury in the Music City Bowl and Fields has been limited after surgery this off-season. That has created a tremendous opportunity at Outside Linebacker and Jonathan Greenard & James Hearns have taken full advantage. Greenard has that ‘look’ about him and when we watch him we feel that we are watching the beginnings of a really special football player. Hearns seems to be finally fully focused and is playing outstanding football off the edge, particularly in pass rush. James also moves up and puts his hand down on the defensive line at times in practice. Greenard & Hearns together can be a menacing pair.
Henry Famurewa is coming off a torn labrum suffered last Fall. Henry looked like someone who was going to factor into the rotation after last Spring prior to his injury. We’ll have to wait until after Spring to see where Henry is once back to full speed, but he has participated during these drills and we will see him during the Spring game. Finesse Middleton also has been valuable in spots but it’s unclear if he will crack the regular rotation in 2016.
Post-Spring Thoughts on Linebackers: Devonte Fields will be back for Fall Camp and won’t have the ramp up time that it took in 2015. We expect Fields to start strong and play like a 1st round selection in 2016 throughout the season. The problem with the Linebackers is that Trevon Young (despite optimism from the coaches) has to be counted on as a longshot to return to action this season. So UofL needs Greenard, Hearns, Famurewa and/or Middleton to play really well on the outside.
The Cards did buy some insurance at OLB when it landed the services of Gary McCrae. McCrae is the same body type and style as Fields and originally signed with Georgia out of high school and instead played with East Mississippi CC. McCrae gives UofL another option on the outside. Tabarius Peterson also will be an OLB for the Cards and both incoming OLBs will have to come in ready in order to compete for a spot.
On the inside Louisville needs depth. Behind Kelsey & Thomas is a lot of inexperience and unproven talent. Tobias Little will come in to help, but as a true freshman playing inside linebacker for Todd Grantham there is an adjustment period. Caban & Stewart will be counted on at some point to play an important role….they need to be ready.
Starting at Safety one thing is as certain as anything we’ve seen this Fall…… DEE SMITH HAS TO PLAY. Dee covers a great deal of space, shows great instincts and is disruptive in the passing game. Of course, we need to see more of Dee’s tackling.
But the play of Smith may cause a shift in how Louisville’s secondary (and maybe the defense overall) is set up. The Cards have a lot of really good safeties & corners in the secondary….it may have a void at outside linebacker. As such, UofL has played some DIME in an attempt to get this talent on the field. To utilize Dee Smith, don’t be surprised to see Chucky Williams move to Strong Safety . Josh Harvey-Clemons of course will be at Star in the Nickel (as usual) and UofL will just slide Chucky & JHC over in BASE. Chucky & JHC look as if they’ve picked up where they left off but Williams at SS would be a bit of a switch. Doing this would provide Louisville with significant tackling in the defense it plays the most to go along with what looks to be an excellent deep cover guy.
At this point we also can’t count out or fail to mention Zykiesis Cannon who can also push for both safety spots. Additionally Khane Pass has a lot of talent and after redshirting a season will be ready to find the field in various capacities. The one player we can’t get a feel for is Terrence Ross who sat out 2015 with an ACL tear and has appeared in some of the practices we observed. Ross has immense talent and was in favor in the latter half of the 2014 season with the Petrino & Grantham staff. If Ross can come back, it would give the Cards another option at Strong Safety.
Josh Harvey-Clemons isn’t the only player we’ve seen at the STAR position. Jaire Alexander has also spent some time there in an attempt to get him on the field more……and that’s kind of the idea with the DIME package. If Louisville can get pressure it’s secondary can create extreme havoc. Jaire has missed some time with injury this Spring so we will see if he’s available on Saturday but we at least learned that Alexander is an excellent option at Corner and seems to be available at STAR this year or in the future.
Shaq Wiggins & Trumaine Washington were excellent at Corner last year. Washington was extremely disruptive in a variety of ways and had a string of causing turnovers for Touchdowns. Wiggins proved that he can handle being on an island with some of the ACC’s best Wide Receivers. We should expect that both Shaq and Trumaine both make leaps forward and play even better together.
Behind the Jaire, Shaq & Trumaine trio of corners is a very dynamic group. Cornelius Sturghill is Louisville Football’s fastest player and Ronald Walker is an early enrollee JUCO (#2 overall CB in JUCO) and originally signed with Ole Miss out of high school. Additionally the Cards have converted wide receiver Alphonso Carter from wide receiver in order to get his athleticism on the field. Carter has been plagued by hamstring issues that occur when he runs straight ahead (when he runs routes) but isn’t as problematic when backpedaling in the secondary. Devontre Parnell also continues to work at corner and has a lot of experience within the program.
Post-Spring Thoughts on the Secondary: Louisville has options……plenty of options….I mean THEY HAVE OPTIONS in the secondary. Don’t be surprised to see the coaches do what they can to get the talent on the field and making accommodations for both Dee Smith & Jaire Alexander. It will also be interesting to see how much highly rated prospects PJ Blue, Lamarques Thomas & London Iakopo factor given Louisville’s options already at Safety. Also the Cards could stand to use another Corner to step up into the regular rotation so we’ll see if any outside of the trio can do that.
Punters & Long Snappers
At Long Snapper Colin Holba is unchallenged as the starter for UofL. Holba has done a great job but Louisville really does need to plan for the future.
Punter is a different story as Josh Appleby graduated. At the moment the job appears to be Mason King‘s who has punted consistently in the practices we were able to see. King has a live leg with decent hang time……but we really want to see him with a rush in his face.
Post-Spring Thoughts: Austin Johnson comes to campus this Fall and the staff has said that they want Johnson to punt. With the way Mason is punting and the lack of an established kicker thus far it may create a need for the staff to look to distribute it’s leg talent.
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