2012 Louisville Preview – Defense
Louisville DT Brandon Dunn
CollegeFootballNews.com 2012 Preview - Louisville Cardinal Defense
Preview 2012 - Defense
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What you need to know: Head coach Charlie Strong's expertise is on defense, as if that wasn't patently obvious in his first two years on the job. His Cardinals have overachieved with average talent inherited from the Steve Kragthorpe era, finishing 17th nationally in scoring D a year ago. Now that Strong has been able to attract a better caliber player over the last three years, expectations are higher than ever in Louisville. The Cards are going to be aggressive, hard-hitting and fundamentally-sound, trademarks of this staff's units over the years. While some key players from a year ago, like LB Dexter Heyman and linemen Greg Scruggs and William Savoy, need to be replaced, Louisville feels it has enough up-and-comers and proven veterans to fill the voids. S Hakeem Smith, CB Adrian Bushell and LB Preston Brown are the established upperclassmen. DE Marcus Smith, NT Jamaine Brooks, LB Deionterez Mount and FS Calvin Pryor are just a few of the young players preparing for their breakout years.
Star of the defense: Junior SS Hakeem Smith
Tackles: Hakeem Smith, 84
Sacks: Marcus Smith, 5.5
Interceptions: Calvin Pryor, 2
Player who has to step up and become a star: Sophomore CB Andrew Johnson
Unsung star on the rise: Junior DE Marcus Smith
Best pro prospect: Senior CB Adrian Bushell
Top three all-star candidates: 1) Smith, 2) Bushell, 3) Junior LB Preston Brown
Strength of the defense: Generating pressure, potential of the secondary, fundamentals, limiting big plays, stuffing the run, red zone D
Weakness of the defense: Results from the secondary, takeaways
One thing that's become clear under Charlie Strong is that the coach and his assistants know how to develop defensive linemen. In the first two years, the staff has done a solid job of transforming average recruits. Now, it's attracting a better caliber player to Louisville. One of the stalwarts on the inside will be 6-3, 290-pound DT Roy Philon who has started 10 games in his first two seasons. He's quick off the ball, yet thick enough to stuff the run, leading the team's D-linemen a year ago with 36 tackles, six coming behind the line. The junior has packed on more weight to help handle the rigors of playing in the trenches.
The program is excited about its options at nose tackle. Junior Brandon Dunn is a steady veteran, with a pair of letters and eight starts from 2011 on his resume. However, sophomore Jamaine Brooks has nudged ahead in the battle to start. The 6-4, 330-pounder worked his way into the rotation a year ago, making 13 tackles and three stops for loss. A classic space-eater, who moves well laterally, he has 45 pounds on Dunn, which will make it difficult to move him out of the play.
At one defensive end spot, the team is banking on a big year from sophomore B.J. Dubose . Now up to 6-4 and 273 pounds, he has the size to play strongside to go along with enough quickness to collapse the pocket. He started three games as a rookie, making 22 tackles, 3.5 stops for loss and three sacks.
Creating a lot of buzz at Fox End is 6-4, 256-pound junior Marcus Smith , a well-traveled member of the program. He arrived as a dual-threat quarterback, moved to linebacker and has settled in nicely as a pass rusher. Still learning, he made five starts in 2011, collecting 6.5 tackles for loss and team-best 5.5 sacks. Once he refines his technique and gets more comfortable at the position, he's liable to become the breakout star of the defense.
And if Smith hits a wall in his growth, the Cardinals can always turn to 6-2, 275-pound junior B.J. Butler , a top recruit from the 2010 class. He's a terrific all-around athlete, with the explosive get-off to harass opposing passers. His slip in production a year ago to just 15 tackles, two stops for loss and 1.5 sacks had more to do with a nagging, season-long injury than an inability to excel at the job.
Watch Out For .... a very deep rotation to help keep everyone fresh. Proper recruiting and player development has positioned Louisville to go two-deep up front, a luxury that every FBS program covets. Not only is the first team rich in talent, but the staff will expect no drop-off when the No. 2's trot onto the field.
Strength: Generating a push. With so many lettermen returning, the Cards plan to pick up where they left off in 2011, when they were No. 10 nationally in run defense and 21st in sacks. Packed with good speed and great motors, Louisville will continue to win the all-important battle at the line of scrimmage.
Weakness: The other end position. The Cards are set at Fox with Smith and Butler, but what happens if opposing teams feel comfortable doubling one of the two? It's important that Dubose and his backup, sophomore Lorenzo Mauldin , make the other guys think twice about committing too many resources to Smith and Butler.
Outlook: The names may not be familiar to the casual fan, but the results are going to be notable this fall. The Cardinals have their best collection of D-line talent in the Strong era, a nice mix of size, quickness and want-to. Best of all? Of the 10 linemen on the roster, not one is a senior, meaning even better results lay ahead in 2013.
While it won't be easy replacing last year's man in the middle, all-star Dexter Heyman, the Cards really like the talent their producing on the second level. Junior Preston Brown is expected to make the shift inside after starting 11 games at strongside. He made 84 tackles, five behind the line, setting the stage for what promises to be a very productive second half to his career. At 6-2 and 257 pounds, he's a prototypical linebacker in the Charlie Strong system, big enough to holds his ground at the point of attack, yet plenty quick going from sideline to sideline. Brown plays with the kind of versatility and physicality that Alabama's Nick Saban also craves at the position.
Taking over for Brown at strongside will be sophomore Deionterez Mount , a terrific prospect with the long frame that will handle additional weight if needed. The 6-5, 243-pounder is a thoroughbred from the second level, using his burst and extended gait to make up ground en route to the backfield. Although he appeared a little overwhelmed as a rookie, making just 10 tackles, the five starts he earned will help immensely in Year No. 2.
The favorite at weakside, 6-1, 234-pound senior Daniel Brown , is looking to rebound from a disappointing junior year. One season after being a dynamic playmaker, he started only six, and made just 39 tackles and four stops for loss. With the recruiting class brought in by Strong in February, Brown will need to recapture his old big-play form in order to fend off the challenge of yet another Brown, 6-1, 229-pound true freshman Keith Brown , a four-star recruit from Miami. He enrolled in classes in January, and has gotten a jump start by taking part in his first spring camp.
Watch Out For .... the rookies. Strong put together one of the nation's best hauls at linebacker on this latest Signing Day. And it wasn't just Brown. Three-star outside linebacker James Burgess also participated in spring, and four-star inside linebacker Nick Dawson arrives in August. It would surprise few if all three didn't earn letters in 2012.
Strength: Big bodies. As it stands now, the starters are going to average just under 6-3 and 245 pounds on opening day. In other words, this group is going to possess the strength and thickness to hold up against the run, shedding blockers and sifting through traffic in order to hunt down the man with the ball.
Weakness: Third downs. The Cards still have a lot to prove in pass coverage this fall. Size will not be an issue, but reading the pass and blanketing receivers will still be a chore as Brown adjusts to a new position inside and Mount gets accustomed to being a full-timer for the first time.
Outlook: This group will still be somewhat raw, especially when the rookies start being injected into the rotation, but they're going to make a bunch of money plays when they pin their ears back. At its core, this collection of defenders is going to be athletic, tenacious and well-coached by Strong and his assistants.
After taking a positive step in pass defense, the Louisville secondary still has a ways to go before placating the coaching staff. Fortunately, five players with starting experience are back to try and help make a trying situation better. Oddly enough, the Cards did produce a pair of First Team All-Big East performers in 2011.
One of the star performers, junior SS Hakeem Smith , has become the mainstay of the defensive backfield since debuting as a Freshman All-American and the Big East Rookie of the Year in 2010. As an encore last fall, he delivered 84 stops and team-highs with nine pass breakups and three forced fumbles. The 6-1, 180-pounder does so many things well for this group, wrapping up in the open field, and stepping up in coverage.
The program's other all-star from the secondary, 5-11, 184-pound senior Adrian Bushell will use 2012 as an audition for NFL scouts. An instant hit in his first year after transferring from Florida, he was a playmaker on defense and special teams. He has superior athleticism to go along with improving cover skills, a challenging combination for opposing receivers. A year after making 50 stops, picking off a pass and blocking two kicks, his output is set to spike.
Smith's partner over at free safety will be hard-hitting sophomore Calvin Pryor who really distinguished himself in his rookie year. An active 6-1, 210-pounder, he started the final seven games, making 43 tackles, three stops for loss, two forced fumbles, two picks and five pass breakups. He has an exciting future ahead in Louisville.
Opposite Bushell, sophomore Andrew Johnson is going to be on the hot seat at the other cornerback position. The precocious 5-10, 178-pounder from Miami started nine games in 2011, chipping in 25 tackles and four pass breakups. One of the fastest players on the roster now needs to fine-tune his coverage skills at this level. At corner, fellow sophomores Terell Floyd and
Jordon Paschal both lettered last fall, providing a basis for more playing time this season.
Watch Out For .... Louisville's opponents to try and target Johnson' side of the field. The attack strategy makes sense since Bushell has emerged as one of the league's top cover guys, and Johnson is still wet behind the ears. If No. 15 can handle the extra attention, the Cardinals will be poised to surge forward in pass defense.
Strength: Run support. The Cardinals defensive backs are a physical and assertive group that's taught to fill gaps quickly and wrap up in the open field. The safeties will pack a punch like linebackers, and the cornerbacks are not afraid to mix it up or take on bigger players.
Weakness: The results. Louisville has a decent amount of talent in the secondary, including two first team league all-stars. However, the results remain unseemly. Last year's squad yielded twice as many touchdown passes as interceptions made, and too often allowed receivers to get behind it.
Outlook: There are concerns, to be sure, but there's simply too much returning talent on the last line of defense for Louisville not to be improved in pass defense this fall. Smith and Bushell will be the anchors at safety and cornerback, respectively. Pryor and Johnson are rising fast, and looking to play with a lot more consistency than they did as rookies in 2011.
The program has lost very few players to graduation this year. Special teams is an exception. With the departure of Chris Philpott, Louisville must develop a new placekicker and punter. Getting a long look at kicker will be redshirt freshman Andrew Fletcher , who edged ahead of the competition. He showed good pop in high school, but still needs to improve his accuracy, especially in clutch situations.
In the race at punter, sophomore Ryan Johnson has built some distance on redshirt freshman John Wallace . Johnson, a local walk-on, will spend the summer attempting to improve his hang time in order to hold off the competition.
The staff will use August to decide on its rotation in the return game. Sophomore Eli Rogers and senior Scott Radcliff will go head-to-head on punt returns. The candidates to return kicks are junior Senorise Perry and senior Adrian Bushell.
Watch Out For… the competition at kick returner to be brisk. Perry and Bushell both showed an ability to bust through the wedge last fall, with the latter returning one kick 100 yards. The pair possesses the burst and acceleration to be positive components of the special teams unit.
Strength: Covering punts. The staff is not bashful about putting some of its best athletes on the punt coverage team, allowing them to fly down the field with reckless abandon. The result last season was a nation's-best seven total yards allowed on 13 returns.
Weakness: Kick coverage. As good as the special teams was in punt coverage, it was equally bad containing kickoffs. In fact, for the second year in a row no team in the Big East was more generous, allowing almost 24 yards a touch.
Outlook: There is lots and lots of uncertainty pertaining to this group, which could cost the Cardinals a crucial game or two in 2012. The return game and coverage units are mixed, solid on punts, yet shaky on kickoffs. And there's no telling what to expect from Fletcher and Johnson in their first seasons as the regular kicker and punter, respectively.
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