One could make the argument that the two best players on UofL's entire team are members of the linebacker group. Keith Kelsey led the team in tackles last year and Devonte Fields finished the year on a tear. Adding Stacy Thomas, who had a big bowl game, to the mix should help this unit continue to be highly productive. The group will miss Trevon Young and his pass rushing ability but James Hearns has been paying his dues for a good while now and should be ready to step into that role. If we see a motivated and driven Fields early in the year, the entire season could play out very differently than last year.
The middle of Louisville's defense has been a strong point for a very long time. Charlie Strong brought in some very talented defensive tackles as well as middle linebackers and Todd Grantham has been able to utilize that talent very well. Keith Kelsey and James Burgess were staples in the middle for the last three years and I'm willing to go out on a limb and say that there won't be much of a drop off with Stacy Thomas taking over for Burgess. Thomas has been a special teams star since coming to Louisville but whenever he got a chance he really flashed. He hasn't made huge plays when he's been out there, but he's been consistent and he tends to be around the ball a lot. The only concern I have with Thomas is his ability to make plays behind the line. Burgess excelled at that as well as zone and man coverage. Can Thomas do those things well?
The outside linebacker spots were unbelievable productive over the last half of the season. Trevon Young had a three game run that would be hard to duplicate and Fields became a consistent playmaker after an abysmal showing against FSU. Young will miss this season after being injured in the bowl game so it's time for James Hearns to make the best of his time on the field. Hearns was a late addition to his recruiting class, but he was a 4-star prospect who has always been a good practice player but he has also been stuck behind talented players. Hearns has experience as a defensive end as well as outside linebacker and I think that experience could really help him bolster the run defense.
The second group of linebackers is loaded with potential but has almost zero game experience. Issac Stewart and Amonte Caban will be both be good players for the Cards, but that's really just a hope at this point. Henry Famuwera was one of my favorite recruits a few years ago, but he hasn't been able to stay healthy or see much of the field yet. Jonathan Greenard and Taberius Peterson both look the part but who knows how they would handle the bright lights as young guys. As good as the first group of linebackers are on this team, the second group leaves a lot of questions that we won't have answers for until these guys actually see the field.
AROUND THE ACC
Micah Kiser, Virginia
Kiser had a breakout sophomore year for the Cavs leading the ACC in tackles per game and averaging one tackle for loss per game. Virginia will be an interesting team to follow this year because Kiser's supporting cast won't likely be as good as it was last year. With last year's defense being worse than the year before, that's saying a lot. I'm not sure how Kiser will do in the new defensive scheme, but new typically coaches try to focus on getting the most out of their best players which odes well for Kiser.
Matt Milano, BC
Boston College's defense will likely take big step back this year with Don Brown leaving to run Michigan's defense. However, Milano is the type of talent that will still make plays for this defense. Milano is a kid that can run and hit and those skills are scheme-diverse. BC blitzed on every play last year which helped Milano put up such crazy numbers but when you really watch him play you can see how skilled he is at reading blockers and taking good angles. With all of the coaching changes in the ACC, BC's defense is the one I'll probably be watching closest.
NEXT IN LINE
Connor Stratchan, BC
One of the reasons that people believe BC will improve this year is the fact that they have both Milano and Stratchan coming back. Stratchan is a high intensity player that made a ton of plays all over the field in BC's pressure scheme. They won't have Steven Daniels in the middle this year but I think Strachan will be key in covering for that loss. If Strachan and Milano can have impact seasons like they did last year, this defense should be just fine.
Josh Sweat, FSU
It's silly to call a former 5-star recruit a "sleeper" but it feels like Josh Sweat is flying under the radar this summer. Derwin James gets a lot of attention and he deserves that attention, but Sweat could really have a big year for FSU this year. Sweat was injured during his senior year so he didn't get a lot of playing time early last year, but once he did he really showed why he was so highly rated. With a full offseason and an upgraded defense around him, I think Sweat has a breakout year.