The defensive unit for Louisville returns a lot of starters and contributors from last season, but one could argue that two starters at linebacker are the most important. Stacy Thomas and James Hearns are likely candidates to lead the team in tackles and sacks, respectfully. Thomas has been a steady contributor for two years now and received some national recognition at the end of the season. Hearns consistently got to the quarterback and got sacks as well as forced fumbles.
Louisville’s depth chart lists the defensive alignment as a 4-3 but they’ve lined up in a 3-3-5 or 4-2-5 in all of the open practices and Peter Sirmon used those alignments at Mississippi State last year. At times James Hearns moves into a defensive end type-role that looks very similar to Todd Grantham’s base defense. It will be interesting to see what Sirmon utilizes most early in the season with Louisville playing three spread offenses to start the season.
True freshman Dorian Etheridge has come on during camp and is practicing with the first group at the weakside inside linebacker spot. Etheridge wasn’t a highly rated recruit like some of the other guys that are getting reps with the first group but it’s easy to see why the transition has been easy for him after watching his highlights. He really excels at the mental aspect of playing middle linebacker. Multiple times in his film he calls out the play and then goes on to make the tackle on said play. He reads and reacts very well and his speed to the ball becomes a big asset because of his ability to diagnose so quickly. Peter Sirmon seems to be putting a premium on speed and Etheridge is definitely in the mold of slimmer and faster linebackers as opposed to the bigger guys that Charlie Strong and Todd Grantham seemed to like.
Another newcomer in this group is converted safety, London Iakopo. London was a highly rated JUCO recruit in last year’s class but he suffered a torn ACL early in the season. One thing that stood out before his injury was his effort on special teams. Iakopo plays with a “hair-on-fire” style and I think that will really serve him well as the backside middle linebacker in this scheme.
Stacy Thomas is the veteran leader of the defense and he really gives you a reason to feel confident in this group. He doesn’t make a ton of highlight plays but he’s extremely consistent and he’s been known to show up in the big moments for this defense. I think Thomas will have a big season and will help the young guys around him with his leadership.
There are a lot of unknowns with Sirmon’s defense after such a bad year at MSU. However, if there is a group that he can feel confidence in, it has to be this group of linebackers. James Hearns is known as a pass rusher, but he’s plenty athletic enough to be able to drop into short coverage if needed. Thomas is great in coverage and reads run plays as well as anyone. He wasn’t all that great as a blitzer and he shouldn’t be asked to do that much this year. Depth is a concern with guys like Isaac Stewart and Amonte Caban seemingly slipping down the depth chart, but this group should be faster than years past with some of the younger guys.