Louisville’s secondary will be the most experienced group on the field for the Cards and should help the transition to a new defensive coordinator. Peter Sirmon’s defense at Mississippi State wasn’t as aggressive as we’re used to seeing here at UofL. Sirmon didn’t blitz as much and ran more zone coverage and experienced defensive backs should be able to make that play calling transition easier. Louisville's secondary is looking to balance out a really good season as they were really good at forcing turnovers last year but they ended up being one of the worst teams in the country at allowing touchdown passes.
Jaire Alexander is the first player in Louisville history to be voted as a first team preseason All-American by the AP. He had a stellar season last year, making his biggest plays in Louisville’s biggest games. This year he will likely be thrown at less often than he was last year but I think that the move to more zone coverage might benefit him more than anyone. Jaire is a quick guy with a great ability to read routes as well as he reads quarterbacks. He should really thrive in short zones where he can bait quarterbacks into bad throws.
Alexander’s one flaw was the same as the group as a whole. He ended up giving up six touchdowns last year and was beat on a couple more throws into the endzone that he was flagged for or were off target. Corners are going to get beat. It’s part of the deal. Alexander could easily be a Thorpe Award winner if he can somehow create the big plays while not being beaten as often.
When Bobby Petrino announced that Cornelius Sturghill was moving back to offense, it caught me completely off guard. I watched Sturghill outplay other corners this spring and had no doubt he’d win the starting job across from Jaire. For whatever reason things changed and Louisville will now likely look to Ronald Walker or Trumaine Washington to man the “field” side. Walker had a “Larry Brown” pick six against Wake Forest in garbage time last year but looked lost against LSU in coverage. The coaches have mentioned him a lot this fall so I could see him getting the starting nod. Washington is a veteran player that’s been hot and cold throughout his career. Last season he made some plays but he was a huge liability against Clemson. Personally, I don’t have a lot of confidence in this spot especially with such a high level player across the field.
Russ Yeast has been getting a lot of attention from coaches, also. The freshman was a big recruiting win for Louisville and he very much looked the part in the limited exposure fans got this fall. Yeast showed good footwork and change of direction skills. I’m not sure if Sirmon is comfortable enough to start a freshman, but with my lack of confidence in the other options, I wouldn’t be all that surprised.
The safety spots will again be manned by Chucky Williams and Zak Cannon. Williams is one of a handful of Charlie Strong holdovers that will start for the defense. I remember writing a few years back that he plays like Calvin Pryor and that opinion hasn’t changed much. He actually has shown better coverage skills and ball skills than Pryor did even though he’s not as strong of a tackler. Cannon is a versatile guy who has played at safety, corner, and star during his career. He’s racked up a lot of tackles last year playing mostly inside the box. Sirmon’s defense seemed to have two deep safeties often last year so Cannon might be playing more over the top zone coverage this year. Louisville is very strong here and they also have good depth with Dee Smith and P.J. Blue (who is injured now but could be back. TreSean Smith looks every bit the part, also.
The “Star” position remains with the changeover to Sirmon’s system. For the last two years Josh Harvey-Clemons was the regular starter there and played well at times and looked like a guy that should be playing linebacker at others. The position itself is a hybrid spot that requires a safety to be able to play linebacker. It’s becoming a common position that coordinators are using to get their best athlete into a role where they can take on multiple roles. JHC was used to do everything from blitzing to man coverage on slot receivers. I would expect Sirmon to expect the same in his defense.
Going into the fall, Khane Pass was practicing with the first group at the star spot with C.J. Avery backing him up. Reading the tea leaves of coaches comments it appears that that may have flipped or at least changed a bit. Avery might be a guy that the coaches rotate in to get him experience or just because of different situations. Pass played really well last year when he finally got on the field against UK. He played deep safety in that game and played over top very well and showed he was more than willing to make strong tackles. Avery is the top recruit in last year’s class and has a full spring of practice under his belt. Even though the experience level isn’t as high as others, this position has a lot of talent and potential. We’ll just have to wait and see how it’s used.