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Cards-Cats Rivalry Week Match-Up: Running Game v. Linebackers

Were you aware that Brian Brohm's entire family played for UofL?  And that Brohm's dad coached Bobby Petrino's son while Petrino was coaching Brohm?  Further, were you aware that Larry O'Bannon went to the same high school as Darrell Griffith?  Would you believe that Taquan Dean and Francisco Garcia committed to Pitino by phone without ever stepping foot on campus, and that Pitino told Edgar Sosa to transfer in the middle of the 2008-2009 season?  If you knew these facts, then you likely watched at least one UofL sporting event from 2002-2010.

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Did you know he took chemistry in the same lab as Darrell Griffith?  via cache2.asset-cache.net

And if you knew these facts, then it is likely that you also know this one: the leading rusher for the winning team in the Louisville-Kentucky football game always out-gains the opposing team all by himself.  This was true until the 2008 - 2009 tilts, although it was mostly true those games as well.  In 2008, UK had a running-back-by-committee, uh, committee that combined for 52 yards (Derrick Locke and Tony Dixon) while the Cards managed just 53 yards.  I forgot what an awful display of football by both sides that game was.  Anyway, in 2009, even though the game was more about turnovers (I ain't madatcha Trent Guy) than running games, Locke, John Conner and Alfonso Smith combined for 145 yards on 28 carries, better than the Cards 133 total yards. 

This year's game will see lots and lots of runs (by running backs, quarterbacks, slot receivers, maybe even a TE or two) and lots of touches for running backs in non-running situations (screens, flares, maybe even a jetsweep! or two).  The spread offense has made a liar out of those who say college football is won in the trenches.  The most important guys on the field on Saturday will be each team's best (and fastest) players: Vic Anderson, Bilal Powell and Doug Beaumont for the Cards, Derrick Locke, Randall Cobb, Randall Cobb, Raymond Sanders and Randall Cobb for the Cats.  And history will repeat itself this year: whichever group of skill players gains the most yards will be doing it for the winning team. 

Duh, you may say, or something similar.  But we here at the Chron are going to take it one step farther: if the other team's most important players are the guys who get the ball in space (be it hand off, screen, shovel pass, whatnot), then the most important players on your team to prevent the other team from winning are the poor guys who have to chase those fast little bastards around: the linebackers.

Let's look more in depth at the linebackers and each team's non-passing game.....after the jump...

WHEN KENTUCKY HAS THE BALL

Who Will Try To Advance The Ball Towards The Endzone By Carrying It?

It's just not as simple as "who will run" the ball anymore because in both offenses, wide receivers run the ball, running backs catch the ball, and if you define the running game as anything that doesn't involve a forward pass of 2 yards or more, then both teams pretty much are going to run the ball all game. 

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I really hope we don't see something like this dance on Saturday 

Stopping Randall Cobb will be job number one for the Cardinal defense, no matter how he gets the ball.  Florida's defense did it in 2009 - holding him to 1 carry for 3 yards, 0-1 passing, 5 catches for 24 yards with a 9-yard longest gain.  And in 2008 - a game UK lost 63-5, something I had completely forgotten - Cobb, mostly playing QB, was 9-18 for 78 yards, ran the ball 9 times for 52 yards, drove the team bus home, caught 2 passes for 7 yards and cooked the post-game meal, but didn't get into the end zone.  Brandon Spikes and company aren't walking down the new inflatable tunnel that showed up in pictures on ITV the other day, though, so hopefully it was Strong's schemes and not just the personnel that did it.

Focusing on stopping Cobb will open things up for one Derrick Locke.  A 5'9'' speedster, Locke became famous for his involvement in this game:

 

An injury kept him out of the lineup for the last five games and bowl game in 2008, but a solid 2009 - 907 yards on 195 carries and 6 touchdowns while splitting time with others - and no other experienced feature back means Locke will really get a chance to shine in 2010.  I think Chip Cosby is giving him a little too much credit when he calls him "[p]ound-for-pound one of the best backs in the country" but he is entitled to his opinion, and if Locke were playing for a more nationally respected team, he would be getting a lot more attention because of his track speed and track record.   

Joining Locke in the backfield is Moncell Allen, who has moved to fullback and tries to replace John Conner, UK's representative on the "Kyle Singler Hasn't He Been In College For A Decade Now?" team.  Allen is fast enough that I wouldn't be surprised if he has one huge play, likely involving misdirection, because it will be easy to lose him in the crowd. 

But wait, there's more.  UK will also throw a couple young, inexperienced but talented backs out there to give Locke a blow, by which I mean rest.  Donald Russell is listed as 2nd on the depth chart.  A 5'11'' sophomore out of Florida, Russell saw some mop-up time against Miami (OH), Eastern Kentucky and Louisiana-Monroe, racking up 137 yards and 1 TD on just 13 carries.  The other name to know: true freshman Raymond Sanders.  Says Cosby:

Credit Joker Phillips and his staff for getting in early on this standout from Georgia. While he's not very big, Sanders has a great football IQ and enough wiggle in the open field to see some backup snaps at tailback as a true freshman.

I would have loved to see that recruiting meeting.  "Joker, we've got to offer this guy.  Sure, he's small, but you should see him wiggle!"  Like the young wide receivers, if we get to know Russell or Sanders very well in a few days, then that's a very bad sign. 

Overall, Locke and Cobb, and if Morgan Newton plays much QB then you can throw him in there, will be the focus of UK's running game, and look for Locke to get the vast majority of the carries, with some Moncell Allen thrown in on short yardage or trickeration/big play situations.  Oddly specific prediction: UK will call a play action pass to Moncell Allen on a key third down in the 4th quarter, and he will be wide open for a 14 yard gain. 

Who Will Chase These Fast Little Bastards Around?

Apparently, the best defensive unit we've got.  Considering this unit is starting a 5th year senior looking for redemption/live up to his recruiting hype, a true freshman who was headed to Cincinnati before the coaching carousel revved up, and a former walk-on with a school-sponsored bio that includes the phrase "assisted on one tackle in win over Indiana State," that's a really scary thought, Cards fans.   But cheer up, because Charlie Strong's defense is designed around linebackers, so he probably knows a bit about how to get something out of them:

Missed assignments by linebackers in this system mean big gains for opponents, because the defense is designed for linebackers to make stops. In head coach Charlie Strong's six seasons as defensive coordinator at Florida, a linebacker led the team in tackles the last five.“It's a linebacker-friendly defense,” position coach Brian Jean-Mary said. “… It's a defense that's made for active linebackers. We usually put them in positions to make plays, whether it's in the passing game or the running game.”

Brandon Heath, the aforementioned redemption-seeker, will join the O'Bannon, Brohm, et al. announcer story cannon with the story of his first meeting with Charlie Strong:

Brandon Heath stepped into University of Louisville coach Charlie Strong's office for the first time not knowing what to expect, nor really what his football future looked like. His grades had nose-dived. He wasn't going to class. Off-field worries had wiggled into his football mind-set. He was a senior-to-be facing a fifth-year flameout. He walked into the room and sat down. Behind his desk, Strong was holding a piece of paper and reading it.  "I had this letter," Strong said (he didn't say from whom). "It said Heath doesn't go to class, he does this; he does that. I said fine, I'll talk to him." 

But he didn't just talk to Heath. After lecturing Heath on wasting his ability and telling him he would go to class, Strong suddenly said, "You know, even better, let's talk to your mom right now."  And there, in front of the surprised linebacker, Strong dialed the phone and got Kimberly Heath on the line in West Palm Beach, Fla. "We have an issue here with Brandon Heath, so here's what I'm gonna do," Strong said he told her. "I'm gonna pack up his things and send him back to you." "No, no, don't do that," Strong said she responded. That was last December.

I encourage you to read that whole Crawford column, because it will make you like Brandon Heath.  You may have liked Brandon Heath once upon a time, mainly when he was a hyped recruit as a freshman in 2006, along with blasts from the pasts such as Latarrius Thomas, Peanut Whitehead, LT Walker, WWI, et al.  Heath chose the Cards over West Virginia very late in the process.  2006 was the first year I was internet-aware of Cardinal sports, so I knew about Heath and there was message board talk about whether he would start at Safety as a true frosh.  Well, he got hurt, redshirted in 2006, the staff switched Thomas from WR to Safety and the rest is history. 

You may have not liked Brandon Heath, but not known it, on Sept. 22, 2007, the first play of the Syracuse game and his first start at Safety.  I don't think he played the next series. Anyway, after a move to linebacker, Heath has shown flashes the last few years, as flashy as anyone could be under the dull mediocrity of Steve Kragthorpe, and apparently under Charlie Strong has put it all together.

However you feel about Heath now, he is probably the most important person on defense this year.  Usually the so-called "quarterback of the defense" is the middle linebacker, and heading into August camp, Antwone Canady as a safe bet to play that role for the 2010 Cards defense.  But, in a surprise move, true freshman Preston Brown will be holding down the middle.  There don't seem to be highlights, but this youtube interview is priceless, especially for the "breaking news" about the results of the "Nortwest (sic)" game. 

 

I can't understand a word the kid says, and whoever was providing the captioning quit about halfway through.  Anyway, Brown certainly looks the part: at 6'0, 249 pounds, he is large for a 21 year old, much less a 17 year old.  That's right, he doesn't turn 18 until October 27.  Sick.

According to some threads on ITV, the coaches were wearing Brown out during the open practices, and apparently there was a reason for that.  Canady will certainly see time, but it is not often that a true freshman comes in and replaces a senior (JUCO but still) with 2 years of starting games and significant action under his belt.  Especially since he played outside linebacker in high school. 

Joining the redemption/senior and true frosh/prodigy story lines in the linebacker corps is one Daniel Brown.  Here's his official bio on uoflsports.com:

Appeared in eight games on special teams... played sparingly at linebacker... credited with a total of two tackles... notched a solo stop in the season finale versus Rutgers... played against Southern Miss but did not have a tackle... did not play against Pitt or at Utah... recovered a fumble in the Cards' loss at UK... assisted on one tackle in win over Indiana State.

Eek.  But according to the CJ, he stayed around all summer, learned the playbook, and had to beat out Dexter Heyman for the starting spot. 

Okay, another elephant on the field: Jordan Campbell.  More likely than Dorsey to show up on the field against UK, but still not bloody likely.  Campbell would add a lot to the depth, and linebacker is actually our deepest and youngest position.  In addition to Preston Brown, Daniel Brown is a sophomore, redshirt frosh Mike Privott was Krag's biggest defensive recruit (and I'm shocked he did not burn his redshirt last year as the placeholder in the Rutgers game), Dean Rogers is a true freshman, Eugene Sowell, Dexter Heyman, one of the Geffrad brothers all will be around next year and beyond. 

Hmm....sounds familiar....inexperienced, some talent, hopefully the new guys are good.  They better be.

Overall, this is probably UK's biggest advantage, at least on paper.  It's no secret that Locke, Cobb and their offense will be geared around running around, past, through and under our linebackers.  The first time Preston Brown (#2 on your roster but # like 12 or so in your heart based on potential) walks off the field with his head down getting yelled at by someone after missing an assignment and giving up a big gain, remember that he is a true freshman and it's unfair to expect him to play like McCune, Harris, Dempsey or Myles just yet. 

If the linebackers can stop UK's running game, then we've got a real shot to win.  If not, Locke probably won't outgain the entire Cards rushing attack by himself, but UK will probably win going away.

WHEN LOUISVILLE HAS THE BALL

Who Will Try To Advance The Ball Towards The Goal By Carrying It?

Our best player: Victor Bilal Victor Bilal.  Our two best players: Victor Anderson and Bilal Powell.  The recently anointed "Face of UofL football", Bilal Powell is well known around these parts.  His signing in 2007, his initial move to defense back, his move BACK to running back, his potential appearance in the UK game, his eventual triumphant debut in the Rutgers game.....his and Heath's career paths may have traced a similar curve.  Powell had a rough start in 2008, fumbling in the UK game and apparently being affected by it all season.  2009 was an okay year  - a couple TDs, not very many yards.  His high school and 2007 style was about speed and elusiveness, and it seemed like bulked up but not enough to really be a power back in 2008 and 2009. 

So reading this, and then seeing Powell beat Vic fair and square to get on the top of the depth chart, I'm sure brought music to Mike's ears:

As he dropped about 10 pounds and became a bit leaner, Powell got some of his speed back without losing his power.

Victor Anderson also needs no introduction.  He's our best player, and probably the only player I've ever made mad on the internet (apparently he wasn't supposed to break news of his working out of the slot, or at least we weren't in our initial installment of the CUTOTD). 

The buzz in the spring was mainly about redshirt freshman Jeremy Wright, but either injury or Donnell's performance has bumped him down to 4th on the depth chart.  It is unlikely guys like Kamal Hogan and Zed Evans will see significant time this season, but may get some carries or some quick passes in the Sanford/Florida-style offense. 

But the running game begins and ends with Bilal Powell and Victor Anderson.  One has shown promise as a potential game changer, and one has proven himself as a game changer, although it was in 2007 and 2008 respectively.  I can't believe I'm saying this, but if both of these guys can produce like they did in their first year for Kragthorpe, then we have a shot at a good season.

Who Will Chase These Fast Little Bastards Around?

Running backs v. Linebackers may be the only match-up where we may have an equal advantage as UK.  Vic, Powell and Beaumont are not significantly worse than Locke and Cobb, and while Cobb is really good, Victor Anderson is really good too.  But UK's linebackers, I dunno, I'm just not seeing it.  According to Clay, their starters against UofL will be Jacob "Don't Call Me Andy" Dufrene, Ronnie Sneed (totally a bad guy character in a Grisham novel) and Danny Trevathan (admittedly, the only UK linebacker with whom I'm familiar).  Back-up Ridge Wilson, out of Louisville Central, was a guy we wanted at UofL and is a true sophomore. 

Trevathan was Kentucky's second leading tackler last season, behind Micah Johnson and just ahead of Sam Maxwell, both of whom are gone.  Sneed played sparingly and got a couple of tackles in the win over Georgia.  And Ridge Wilson apparently got Kragshirted, getting a half assisted tackle in his first game, an assisted tackle in his second game, and then a bunch of DNP's and no tackles the rest of the season.  Dufrene at least started the bowl game loss against Clemson when Maxwell got hurt, and got 2 tackles and an assisted tackle for his troubles.  Also, and this blog tries not to get personal, but he totally looks like a guy that I would not like. 

The Courier, as it does sometimes, focused most of its preseason profile on the guy who didn't win the starting job: Qua Huzzie.  Apparently, Qua is a bit of a character and vocal leader, and Sneed is not so aggressive.  Either way, both should see time against the Cards. 

Beyond that, there's not much to say about Kentucky's linebackers, which may be a good thing for us.  Cosby doesn't list any of them in his "5 players you know, 5 players you need to know" gimmick.  After spending lots of words on the Huzzie-Sneed Battle (which sounds awesome when you put it like that) the Courier gives short shrift to the Wilson/Dufrene fight, and says that Trevathan basically has his spot locked up.  Backing up Trevathan is true freshman Jewell Ratliff. 

If UK does have an advantage over us at linebacker, it is interesting names.  They could realistically trot out guys named Ridge, Qua and Jewell on the same play.  I'm stalling at this point, afraid to get to my ultimate point: UK's linebackers don't really scare me.  But on paper, our linebackers are not that great either, although we appear to have more talent and more long-term potential there.  

So with all the unknowns about this game, one thing appears certain: both teams will get the ball to their best players in space, and whichever group of unknown linebackers makes plays could really be the deciding factor.  Another certain thing?  The viewing audience will all be made aware that Charlie Strong called Brandon Heath's mom.