Putting together a Depth Chart for a Todd Grantham Defense is difficult. Grantham asks nearly every player to do multiple things. Safety/Nickel/Corners. Nickels/Linebackers. Outside Linebackers/Defensive Ends. Defensive Ends/Nose Tackles. It’s interchangeable. The great thing is that if Coach Grantham can get his best 24 defensive players to effectively play multiple positions then the Cardinal defense doesn’t have to go too deep into its 2-deep and play players before they are ready……and it makes the Cards more flexible in hurry-up situations and with substitutions due to fatigue and injury.
So with that being said, we made our best guess at the Louisville defensive depth chart with the caveat that it’s REALLY difficult to really place any of these guys into just one position on a depth chart. Also we made a few Bold Predictions.
A Louisville Player Will Win Defensive Player of the Year in the ACC
There are a lot of REALLY good Defenders in the ACC. Jaylen Ramsey & Terrance Smith at FSU, Kendall Fuller at Virginia Tech, Jeremy Cash at Duke, come to mind. Sheldon Rankins and James Burgess both were honored on the Pre-Season All-ACC and both players can certainly make runs at Defensive Player in the league.
Rankins was Louisville’s 4th leading tackler last season from the Defensive End position amassing 53 tackles and leading the Cards with 8 sacks, and 13.5 Tackles for Loss and added 2 INTs and 1 Forced Fumble. The 2014 Defensive Player of the Year Vic Beasley at Clemson finished with 34 tackles, 21.5 TFLs, and 12 sacks with 2 forced fumbles. Rankins was a disruptive force and was certainly called on more against the run than Beasley was at Clemson. Sheldon can easily build on his numbers because the pressure Louisville will bring in 2015 will be MUCH more intense than it was a year ago and teams will not be able to key on Rankins because of the talent of the Cardinal Defense.
James Burgess was UofL’s 3rd leading tackler in 2014 and played most of 2014 injured. James missed the Spring with off-season surgery and in Fall Camp looked FANTASTIC. We counted 7 dropped interceptions from Burgess (including several potential Pick 6 possibilities) that would have forced the league (and nation) to notice the work of James Burgess. As it happens Burgess finished with 71 tackles, 3 sacks, 10 TFLs, and only 3 INTs. If Burgess can remain healthy and keep being as disruptive against the pass as he is against the run James Burgess has a chance to put his name in lights.
The fans that have seen Spring Practice or the open practices at Fall Camp already are aware of the ability of Josh Harvey-Clemons. At the “Star” position in Todd Grantham’s defense, Josh should really never be off the field. He can cover, rush the passer, provide run support and at 6’5 230 lbs he’s a mismatch in a lot of ways for nearly every team. He’s also a play-maker on Special Teams and while he wasn’t pre-season ALL-ACC due to the fact that he didn’t play in the league a year ago, he will be on the Post-Season All-ACC team and he could have a POY type season. Expect for Josh Harvey-Clemons to be one of the most important defensive players on Louisville’s team and in the country in 2015.
Devonte Fields comes to Louisville with a big reputation having already earned Player of the Year accolades in the Big 12. Fields ability to rush the passer will be felt immediately, but his presence will also be a huge factor for Sheldon Rankins and vice versa. If teams decide to double Rankins they aren’t doubling DeAngelo Brown, if they are doubling Fields, Rankins can do major damage along with Pio Vatuvei….and don’t forget the impact of the linebackers…all of which will benefit. Fields has moved up to the 1st unit past Trevon Young, Henry Famurewa, and others and his teammates have already been praising his ability. If he is in top form, he can make a run at some serious accolades.
The Cards Will Be One of the Best Defensive Teams in the Nation
Once again Louisville will be one of the best defensive teams in the nation. Our bold prediction is that the Cardianl D will be even better than a year ago. The Cards were 6th in Yards Allowed at 308.5 ypg, 24th in Points Allowed at 21.8 ppg, 10th in Rush D (108.92 ypg), 27th in Passing D (199.6 ypg), 11th in Forced Turnovers (30), 10th in Sacks (3.15 pg), 28th in Tackles for Loss (6.77 pg), 1st in INTs (26), 10th in 3rd Down Conversions Allowed (31.79%), 26th in Red Zone Conversions Allowed (76.92%).
But for all of those stats one thing stands out: The Long Plays Louisville Allowed. The Cards would play LIGHTS OUT for an entire game and teams would inevitably break off long gains to produce much of their yardage and points in a particular game. The Cards ranked 63rd in Plays +20 Yards, 68th in Plays +30 Yards, and 74th in Plays +40 Yards.
By eliminating the big plays, Louisville can easily improve its defense. The Front 7 largely returns or is filling in with similarly talented players (if not upgrades). The real question is whether or not the Cardinal Secondary can play as well as it did a year ago…..BUT the pressure that Louisville intends to bring will make the job of any secondary easier and with the (unrealized) talent that UofL’s secondary possesses it will just make the transition easier.
Several Players Will Have to Consider NFL Early Entry
A year ago Louisville had 10 players drafted into the NFL, 5 of which were defensive players. This year several non-Seniors will likely consider an early entry into the NFL Draft players like: DeAngelo Brown, Keith Kelsey, Devonte Fields, Josh Harvey-Clemons, and Shaq Wiggins all could potentially be sitting on a season in which they have a decision to play professional OR return for another season of college.
Of course, each of these players will need to perform up to this standard during the 2015 season, but the potential is there. DeAngelo Brown is a space-eating NT, he is a tad short compared to the prototype NFL interior player but missed the 2013 season with an injury and was extremely effective in his first year back in action. Keith Kelsey is Louisville’s returning leading tackler and was 2nd only to James Sample a year ago. Kelsey has had two tremendous seasons for the Cards and his junior year will likely be his best yet.
The transfer group of Fields, Harvey-Clemons, and Wiggins might consider the ‘early’ move as well. Devonte Fields has the coveted pass rushing ability that the NFL desires. Harvey-Clemons is a freak of an athlete and teams will likely be clamoring for a chance to bring him onto the roster. Shaq Wiggins is probably the least likely of the transfer group, but with a big year could certainly play his way onto the early entry radar.
It is still a long ways off to speculate if anyone else could potentially move into the early-entry category, BUT the Cards lost a great deal of talent a year ago to the NFL and should put a sizable fresh batch of NFL talent into the league again during the 2016 Draft.
Nick Dawson-Brents (situational)
James Hearns/DeVonte Fields (when Fields plays End)
Stacy Thomas (likely the main back-up at both Middle LB spots)
Tim Bonner OR Jonathan Grenard
Trumaine Washington or Duke Culver
Jaire Alexander OR Cornelius Sturghill