The saying goes that defense wins championships. Well, Louisville brought home a share of the Big East championship by stifling offenses all season long. Charlie Strong was one of the top defensive coordinators in the country before he landed his first head coaching job here at Louisville. It should be no surprise that he hired an unbelievably talented defensive coordinator when it came time to fill his staff. Vance Bedford is a mad scientist when it comes to applying pressure with his defense. He is known for blitzing often and blitzing from areas that you can't expect.
I've probably talked about Bedford's 3-3-5 defense more than any sane human being should but I really can't ever get enough of it. It's controlled chaos. There is a rhyme and reason to every movement and if someone makes the wrong move it leaves everyone else vulnerable. If Preston Brown doesn't hit his gap when he's supposed to, Daniel Brown might end up having a running back run right past him. But if everyone follows their assignment it's a defense that is very hard to prepare for. What's so great about the defense is the fact that Bedford uses it to blitz as opposed to help get more speed on the field to cover receivers.
A lot of people have mentioned the fact that Preston Brown will be taking on the leadership role left by Dexter Heyman. Many people underrate the importance of Hakeem Smith in the defensive backfield. Smith's 25 straight starts help Bedford trust that guys will be in the right coverages each play. You can't blitz unless your linebackers can get to the quarterback and your corners and safeties can cover receivers. Smith did a great job communicating with the young guys that he lined up last year. Outside of a handful of plays, Louisville at least seemed to cut down on the amount of "random receiver running by himself down the sideline" that us fans grew so tired of in years past. This year with four returning starters and depth at defensive back Bedford should be able to blitz more if that's even possible. The 3-3-5 is a is the most exciting defense I've seen at the college level in a long time and Bedford uses it well.
Louisville's defensive line is as deep as it has been in years and the coaching staff hopes that it leads to more turnovers this year. One complaint that the coaches have repeated all summer long is that the defense didn't intercept enough passes last year. A better pass rush should help the defensive backfield by flustering the quarterback. As I've stated before, Max Smith does not handle pressure well so the line must get after him Sunday. I expect Bedford to zone blitz a lot to try and see if he can bait Smith into some rushed throws across the middle. Also, if the line can get pressure on Smith without the help of blitzing, this game could get one-sided rather quickly.
Bedford has the intensity that you need when you coach a young defense. When you want guys to fly around and hit anything that moves, you have to lead by example. He has an unbelievable passion for the game and it exudes on the sideline. I fully expect for this defense to be one of the best we've seen in years and Bedford will be the reason why.
Rick Minter has had a pretty successful career as a defensive coordinator after spending almost a decade as Cincinnati's head coach. He wasn't a big-time hire for Joker when he came onto the staff last season, but he is an upgrade from Steve Brown. Minter brought in a defense that really maximizes speed and discipline. More or less, the defense asks the defensive line to occupy blockers so that the linebackers can make plays. Winston Guy and Danny Trevathan took advantage of not having to deal with as many blockers to put up very good seasons last year. Kentucky was also able to average over an interception a year last year as well as breaking up a good number of passes.
What I'm looking for on Sunday is for Minter to blitz more than he did last year. I don't expect him to, but I think he needs to. Kentucky's defense only returns one player that had more than three tackles for loss last season and even with pretty good talent, they rarely got to the quarterback last year either. Good college defenses almost always rely on pressure and turnovers and UK didn't stand out in either category. Minter seems content with rushing his front three while bringing one extra man from an extremely predictable angle. Louisville's experienced offensive line and running backs should have no problem picking up the "blitzes" that Minter calls. What surprised me last year was the fact that Louisville was able to throw three touchdown passes even though UK drops so many players into coverage. Minter doesn't have the experience in the secondary this year, and I can't imagine that three new players would do much better than their senior-laden secondary of last year.
To put it pretty bluntly. Kentucky doesn't apply enough pressure to be a great defense. They improved last year and played well against some pretty good offenses, but they need to be less obvious to be great. MInter is replacing a handful of really good players on his defense and he needs the young talent to hit the ground running Sunday. Louisville will get after Smith on Sunday and should also do a good job against a suspect running game with it's run blitzes. Bedford has a starting lineup of guys that have all played in his system for a full year and he won't hold punches. He really has the makings of a great defense. At least that's what it looks like right now. Kentucky will be a pretty good test to see if the loss of guys like Dexter Heyman and Greg Scruggs are bigger than I expect. Spoiler alert: It won't be.