2013 Louisville Preview – Defense
CollegeFootballNews.com 2013 Preview - Louisville Cardinal Defense
Preview 2013 - Defense
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What you need to know: Louisville should have been better on defense in 2012. And head coach Charlie Strong and defensive coordinator Vance Bedford know it. The Cards weren't horrible, but they did drop from 17th nationally in scoring D to 36th a year ago. Plus, there were a few too many breakdowns, such as in the 45-26 loss to Syracuse. Little what this group did last year was satisfactory to a taskmaster, such as Strong, from finishing last in Big East sacks to picking off only 11 balls. The encouraging news is that just about everyone is back, and they're all eager to write a new chapter in 2013. The Cardinals will be led by a veteran D-line, LB Preston Brown and the dynamite safety tandem of Calvin Pryor and Hakeem Smith. After playing it a little safe a year ago, Bedford might want to take a few more chances with his linebackers and his safeties. The program has enough athletes, and has recruited well enough to be a risk-taker from time to time.
Unsung star on the rise: Sophomore LB Keith Brown
Tackles: Preston Brown, 109
Sacks: Lorenzo Mauldin, 4.5
Interceptions: Terell Floyd, 3
Best pro prospect: Pryor
Top three all-star candidates: 1) Pryor, 2) Senior SS Hakeem Smith, 3) Senior LB Preston Brown
Strength of the defense: D-line depth, safeties, stripping the ball
Weakness of the defense: Pressure, coverage breakdowns, run defense, third-down stops, red-zone stops
Louisville needs more from its D-line. More sacks. More stops against the run. Just more. The only lineman to start every game a year ago was 6-3, 260-pound senior DE Marcus Smith, a quarterback when he arrived, and a linebacker until early 2011. Despite gradually adding weight along the way, he's remained a terrific all-around athlete for the Cards. However, he's a microcosm for the unit, needing to produce more than last year's 29 tackles, seven stops for loss, four sacks and two forced fumbles.
Flanking Smith at the other end position will be another talented rusher itching to maximize his athleticism, 6-4, 240-pound junior Lorenzo Mauldin. He showed flashes of brilliance as a first-time defensive end, using a good motor and great closing speed to collect 22 tackles, 6.5 stops for minus yards and 4.5 sacks. But he was injured in November and was just never the same the rest of the way. The program has high hopes for its emerging pass rusher.
The team's veteran on the interior will be 6-3, 285-pound senior Brandon Dunn, a 21-game starter over the last three seasons. More steady than spectacular, he dropped weight last year before going on to post a career-best 28 tackles and two sacks. While his agility and quickness have improved, he remains somewhat vulnerable on running downs.
Anchoring the nose will be 6-4, 330-pound junior Jamaine Brooks, a space-eater in the trenches. He came on late last year to start six games and get in on 19 tackles. However, his impact to the team, specifically the run defense, will never be appropriately measure by his stat line in a box score.
Junior B.J. Dubose was missed after he was suspended midway through the 2012 season. At the time, he'd started four games, while making 15 tackles and three pass breakups. His biggest value to the D is that he's a swingman, capable of coming off the bench to play either tackle or end. There's cautious optimism that the problems of the past will stay in the past.
Watch Out For .... injury updates. The line's depth promises to look better in the fall than it did in the spring. Junior DE Deionterez Mount and senior DT Roy Philon were limited as they rehabbed injuries, but are expected to compete for jobs in August. Mount is a long and athletic 6-5, 243-pounder who has started eight games and notched four sacks over the last two seasons. Philon is a sturdy 6-3, 290-pounder, with 17 career sacks. He was active in 2012, registering 27 tackles, four stops behind the line and 2.5 sacks.
Strength: Depth of the rotation. Assuming everyone can stay healthy—and out of trouble—Louisville boasts seven upperclassmen along the D-line with starting experience. That's a luxury for the coaching staff, which will be able to keep everyone fresh, and mix-and-match combinations depending on the specific situation.
Weakness: Production. Yeah, the linemen look the part and have been around for years, but what happened last year? Sure, the line's depth got tested, but no one really stepped up and seized the opportunity. The Cardinals failed to produce an All-Big East lineman for the second straight year, ranked last in the league in sacks and yielded 4.3 yards per carry.
Outlook: After disappointing in 2012, the D-line is determined to turn things around this season. The unit might be lacking in star power, but it houses plenty of capable bodies, all of whom will be looking to initiate a turnaround. The Cardinals have to be better at the point of attack in 2013; there's just too much quality, urgency and competition to repeat last year's lackluster effort.
Preston Brown was tasked last year with moving inside to succeed All-Big East performer Dexter Heyman. Mission accomplished. The senior, too, evolved into an all-star in the middle of the D for the Cardinals, making a team-high 109 tackles, including three for minus yards to land on the league's second team. The 6-0, 257-pounder is a punishing hitter, who is tough to move off his thick base. Brown is a nice fit for head coach Charlie Strong's system, physical enough to become a roadblock for opposing ballcarriers, yet quick enough to not get exposed in coverage when a tight end starts streaking down the middle of the field.
Senior George Durant is expected to be at strongside, a job he held for eight games a year ago. The 6-0, 234-pounder has come a long way since arriving as a walk-on, posting a career-best 37 tackles last season. Better against the run than in pass coverage, it's possible he could be a two-down linebacker this fall.
The most competitive linebacker position will be at weakside. Sophomore James Burgess currently holds a lead after filling in nicely for an injured Daniel Brown last season. He started four games in his first year out of Homestead (Fla.) High School, contributing 27 tackles, two stops for loss and two picks. He's only 6-0 and 210 pounds, but compensates by cover a lot of ground.
Right behind Burgess—and Brown in the middle—is 6-1, 229-pound sophomore Keith Brown. The four-star Freshman All-American started five games in his debut, and is going to play a lot of football again this year. The sure-tackler had 57 stops, 2.5 behind the line, and laid down a solid foundation for a promising future.
Watch Out For .... Keith Brown to play nearly as many snaps as any other linebacker, regardless of whether or not he starts. Yeah, he still has some developing to do, as does Burgess, but he has a world of talent and the desire to fulfill all of his potential as quickly as possible. Brown versatility will also earn him plenty of reps.
Strength: Range. Whether it's because of the instincts of Preston Brown or the speed of James Burgess and Keith Brown, Louisville is able to cover a lot of ground from the second level. The unit is a little smaller and a little quicker than it was at the start of 2012, which will open up new opportunities for the coaching staff.
Weakness: Production. Okay, so the linebackers can cover a lot of ground, but will they maximize that strength? Last season, the Cardinals had a dearth of explosive plays, especially in the backfield. While the scheme might have been a contributing factor, this unit has too much raw talent to not be creating more takeaways and stops for loss.
Outlook: The linebackers ought to be improved in 2013, simply because the two rookies that played so many snaps a season ago are now a year older. Preston Brown is the anchor and a candidate to once again surpass 100 tackles. Durant is a steady and reliable veteran who'll help bring a sense of order and leadership to the huddle.
How good are the Louisville safeties going to be this year? Nick Saban might be just a little envious. SS Hakeem Smith thought about turning pro early, but decided instead to return for his senior year, his fourth as a starter with the Cards. The three-time All-Big East selection begins the year with 245 career tackles, including 73 stops last season. Smith is a seasoned leader of the D, with the 6-1, 180-frame to cover tall receivers and separate the man from the ball. With pro scouts watching closer than ever, he's liable to deliver his best season as a member of the program.
Smith was a known commodity when last season began. FS Calvin Pryor was not. That paradigm shifts this offseason. Pryor erupted in his second season as a Card, earning Second Team All-Big East after making 100 tackles, two picks and five forced fumbles. He plays with a violent tendency and a knack for changing the momentum of a game. And at 6-2 and 210 pounds, he has the muscle to back up his frenetically physical style of play. Best of all for Louisville, Pryor has yet to reach his full potential as the intimidator of the defensive backfield.
The key for the Louisville secondary this year will be the play of the cornerbacks, especially now that all-star Adrian Bushell is out of eligibility. Taking over as the veteran of the group will be 5-10, 201-pound junior Terell Floyd, a 10-game starter last season. He made nice strides in 2012, displaying toughness from the position and good ball skills. As a sophomore, he made 34 tackles, three stops for loss, two sacks, three picks and five pass breakups.
Joining Floyd in the lineup will be 5-9, 187-pound junior Andrew Johnson, who has started 15 career games, six in 2012. While not the most physically-gifted cornerback on the roster, he plays the game hard, smart and with a lot of intensity. However, he does need to be more active after making 26 tackles, 1.5 tackles for loss, one pick and two pass breakups in 2012. Johnson might need to look over his shoulder at 5-10, 174-pound junior Stephan Robinson, who has more physical upside, but just isn't as crisp in coverage. Robinson has started a game in each of the last two years.
The Cards are already grooming their next generation of star safeties, 6-0, 182-pound sophomore Jermaine Reve at strong safety and 6-0, 190-pound Gerod Holliman behind Pryor at free safety. Reve brings a lot to the field, which is why the staff will use him at nickel and possibly even corner. He started two games in 2012, making 32 tackles, 4.5 stops for loss and a key pass breakup in the Sugar Bowl. Holliman was limited to three games by injuries, but is healthy again and ready to contribute. The former four-star recruit is an outstanding athlete, with the hard hits to punish receivers.
Watch Out For .... Pryor's NFL Draft stock to soar. He's still an unknown in national circles, but that ought to start changing this season. He's the most valuable player on the Louisville D, and he's close to the prototype for what pro scouts look for in a next-level safety. If he makes even modest progress, he'll likely forego his final year of eligibility.
Strength: The safeties. The Cardinals would rank in the top five or so nationally at the position on Smith and Pryor alone. However, the fact that Reve and Holliman have such high ceilings takes the safeties to another level. The safeties are physical playmakers from the last level, providing much-needed support to the team's run and pass defense.
Weakness: Breakdowns in coverage. The cornerbacks are good but not great, and it showed against the better quarterbacks on the schedule. The Cards had a 2:1 ratio of touchdowns allowed to picks to rank a mediocre 47th nationally in pass efficiency defense. Oh, and against four of last year's veteran passers, Bryn Renner, Tino Sunseri, B.J. Daniels and Ryan Nassib, the Louisville pass defense gave up 13 scoring strikes, while picking off only two balls.
Outlook: This isn't an elite pass defense, but which quarterbacks on the schedule will exploit it? Blake Bortles of UCF will present the biggest threat on Oct. 18. The Cardinals don't play in the Big 12 or the Pac-12, and those snot-knocking safeties will be around to gloss over a multitude of sins. Louisville will be fine, though occasional lapses in pass defense cannot be ruled out in 2013.
Virtually everyone is back from a special teams unit that performed rather well in 2012. In his rookie season, PK John Wallace was true on 16-of-21 field goal attempts, finishing second in school history for three-pointers in a season. The sophomore did miss four extra points, but compensated with two game-winning field goals, and improved his confidence throughout the year.
The staff was generally pleased with the punting of junior walk-on Ryan Johnson, despite the fact that he averaged just 39.4 yards per attempt. He excelled with his directional kicks, placing 20-of-49 boots inside the opponent's 20-yard line.
Kai DeLa Cruz leads two other juniors in the quest to be the team's punt returner. He was quiet on the job last season, averaging just 4.7 yards on 21 attempts. Sophomore Corvin Lamb leads junior Robert Clark in the battle to succeed Adrian Bushell as the primary kick returner. None of the Louisville return men did anything particularly exciting last fall.
Watch Out For… Wallace's opportunities for walk-off heroism to be limited this fall. Louisville played in a lot of tight games in 2012, affording the team's placekicker a handful of chances to send his team home with an exciting victory. Those moments will be few and far between with the slate the Cards play in 2013.
Strength: Wallace. It's not always easy for a youthful kicker to deliver so early in his career. But that's exactly what Wallace did in his debut, missing just five field goals, while showing poise under pressure. The sophomore should be even better in his second year on the job.
Weakness: Coverage teams. For all of the good athletes harbored by Louisville, you wouldn't know it based on the special teams play. The Cards have yielded more than 24 yards on kickoffs in consecutive years, allowing two to be taken back for touchdowns in 2012. Plus, the program ranked 119th nationally in net punting, a collaborative problem for Johnson and his tacklers.
Outlook: On the one hand, the Cards located solid footing with the development of Wallace and Johnson. On the other, though, the special teamers did a very poor job of returning and covering both punts and kickoffs last year. This is an overlooked area of the squad that could come back to haunt it at some point in 2013.
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