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The Cardinal Countdown: 99 Days Until Kickoff

NCAA Football: North Carolina State at Louisville Jamie Rhodes-USA TODAY Sports

#99 James Hearns

Class: RS Senior

Ht/Wt: 6-3/249

Position: Linebacker

Hometown: Tallahassee, FL

Twitter: @JamesHearns21

Thoughts: James Hearns came out of the gate last year like he finished off 2015…playing like an absolute animal. With the loss of Trevon Young to injury Hearns had an opportunity to help fill that end/linebacker void left by Rankins and Pio the year prior, and he did not disappoint.

In my opinion you could have pegged Hearns as the mid season defensive MVP last year. The first four games of 2016 Hearns had at least one sack in every game, multiple forced fumbles, multiple pass break ups, and also had 15 tackles….in four games, people. As the season wore on, and even as the team as a whole began to struggle, Hearns remained consistent getting at least five defensive impact plays (tackle, forced fumble, pass breakup, or QB hurry) every single week with only two outliers (NC State: 2, BC: 3) and the Houston game, in which he left early due to injury. He finished 2016 as the team leader in sacks (8) and forced fumbles (5), and was second on the team in QB hurries (7). After suffering a back injury at Houston (if we’re being honest, the whole team got dismantled at Houston) Hearns did return for the UK game 10 days later and didn’t quite appear to be himself, missing assignments, less awareness, and what seemed to me to be reduced mobility. I assumed it was some lingering effects of the injury and maybe some mental distractions due to the rivalry so I was interested to see him play against a good LSU front line in the bowl game. After all, six or seven games into the season many assumed Hearns was gone…as in, ‘potential early round draft pick’ gone, and his play against LSU could push that decision one way or the other. Then, a couple weeks before the bowl game, as many of us were celebrating our new Heisman trophy winner, Hearns unfortunately was nursing a fresh gunshot wound on his elbow. Both James and fellow linebacker Henry Famurewa were shot at a house party the night of the Heisman ceremony and both were forced to miss the bowl game due to those injuries. While Hearns did put some feelers out in regards to the draft I think the presumption was that he would return for his redshirt Senior season…and boy am I glad he did.

While most of us have little insight as to the specific role Hearns will play in the new Peter Sirmon defense I think even the most casual fan would expect Hearns to remain as a starter, even with the return of Trevon Young, as they may rotate or wind up playing opposite each other on the outside in the linebacker position. If Sirmon keeps the 3-4 scheme that Grantham liked to run (appears he will) I’d anticipate James sliding onto the line on occasion as well, coming out of the 3 point stance at times (he proved he could show patience/maturity in this role at times last year). In my opinion, Hearns was probably the most consistent players among the linebackers last year and he’s gonna need some help for the Cards to produce another Top 20 defense, no matter what scheme Sirmon decides to run. Both Petrino and Sirmon have mentioned this offseason about the importance of getting pressure with four guys instead of having to bring that fifth man. Sirmon spoke on that specifically back in March when he highlighted some of the best defenses in the country over the last few years and how they only send four to the backfield. The fast pace offenses simply don’t allow you the freedom to only have six guys in coverage as it once did. Hearns and Young, when asked to rush the passer, will be vital to the success of the defensive front. And if they don’t succeed…they should 100% open a law firm. ‘Hearns & Young’ sounds like they would absolutely rake in court.

Focus for Hearns should be on maintaining consistency, removing any doubt about his mental toughness and continuing to be an absolute ballhawk in regards to getting to the QB and forcing fumbles. Sirmon challenged him to be the best player in the ACC at rushing the QB, a lofty goal no doubt, but certainly not unattainable. If I got a vote (I still don’t for some reason), he’s a defensive co-captain this season along with Jaire Alexander, and my new man crush Drew Bailey.

Sweet Tweet:

Good things come to those who wait…and guess what, now you only have 99 days until football! See, one day down already. We can do this. Before you know it we’ll be trudging through offensive lineman breakdowns and taking about how we hope to keep all our fingers during our Fourth of July celebrations. (Don’t underestimate those hoosker doos, spleen splitters, or whistlin’ kitty chasers. They’ll sneak up on ya, steal your pinkie before you can finish your third burger)