Defensive line is the strength of the Louisville defense in 2015, but only by the slimmest of margins. Louisville will take the field with one of if not the best collection of linebackers the school has ever had. With the size and athleticism of the line in front of it being exactly what Todd Grantham wants in a defense, Louisville's linebackers should be free to roam and attack as they were in 2014.
|Isaac Stewart||RS FR||6'2||238||-||-||-||-||-|
Breaking Down the Battle
Louisville's self-titled "Bash Brothers" will man the linebacker corps on the inside. Both are quite good, instinctive defenders with the ability to get wide quickly. Here's Keith Kelsey getting all the way to the sideline from the middle on a 4th and 2 that stopped an NC State drive in Louisville's territory.
With the spread attacks that Louisville will face in Auburn, Clemson, Houston, and in a slightly different way Kentucky, having linebackers that can support the run inside and still get wide and pursue like this is an asset. The challenge for Louisville this season will be developing quality depth among some of the new faces. Burgess is a senior and Kelsey will probably have a tough decision about coming back or heading on to the NFL after this season.
That means true freshman Amonte Caban (who I have always pictured as the heir apparent to Keith Kelsey), redshirt freshman Isaac Stewart (who I have been told the coaches like a lot), Finesse Middleton, and Stacy Thomas in particular will have an opportunity to push for playing time this year with 2016 and beyond in view.
On the outside, Louisville did about as well as anyone could in trying to replace Lorenzo Mauldin by bringing in Devonte Fields. All baggage aside, it's hard to top bringing in the former Big 12 defensive player of the year who happens to be a hellacious pass rusher. Functionally, one OLB in Grantham's defense is a stand up defensive end and that's where Fields will have a chance to make an immediate impact. As I mentioned in the defensive line piece, offenses are going to have to decide how to attack a Louisville defense in the middle that will have Josh Harvey-Clemons at safety, Burgess, Kelsey, and Fields at LB, and Sheldon Rankins and DeAngelo Brown on the line. It won't be easy.
The backup spot behind Fields and the other outside linebacker position have plenty of options but little experience. Against most spread offense opponents that other linebacker won't be on the field much at all anyway, but in short yardage down and distance or against teams like Pittsburgh and Boston College who love to run the ball so much, you can count on seeing more in the box defenders. Trevon Young missed spring with an injury but coaches continued to speak well of his abilities as a pass rusher. Keith Brown and James Hearns were both highly rated out of high school and got a ton of reps in spring. One or both of them might finally have the chance to live up to some of their billing at that other spot. While both true freshmen Jonathan Greenard and Tim Bonner have the length and ability to add size that Grantham likes, there's likely enough depth to let both redshirt and physically grow into those positions, especially since Devonte Fields will almost certainly play one year and head on to the NFL.
I didn't mention him above because I wanted to save him for down here. I'm personally a big fan of Henry Famurewa at the OLB spot opposite Fields. He's blown up physically since arriving (up to 245 now), has great balance and long arms, and to me looked very strong in the spring game when given playing time. Don't be surprised to see him start making his way to the field against more traditional offenses and in short yardage situations and go from there.
Better or Worse than Last Year
Despite losing Mauldin to the NFL, returning everyone else with a year under their belts in the new system, plus the addition of Fields makes me comfortable saying this year's linebackers should be even better than last year. The biggest thing I'll be watching for us how quickly they can develop the next generation of LBs for 2016 and beyond.