When the regular season ended I decided to go through every base statistic for Louisville's defense while comparing those stats to the 2018 and 2017 season. Bryan Brown’s defense improved in nearly every area over the 2018 class. They also were better than the 2017 defense in a small handful of spots as well as being close in others. The results led me to a really simple reasoning for why the defense struggled so much this year: recruiting.
There are consequences when it comes to recruiting. Those consequences can lead to a roster full of guys that go on to make All-Conference teams or play in the NFL. You could also end up in a situation where your team doesn’t have enough scholarship players in some positions to field an actual team. Louisville entered the 2014 season in the former and somehow ended up in the latter in 2019. How they got there was a fascinating effort that played out right in front of our eyes.
We live in a world where recruiting rankings drive the discussion when it comes to how your team is judged on the recruiting trail. They’re meant to do that as it’s impossible to keep up with everything and sports fans absolutely love rankings. It’s why we still have AP rankings in sports that don’t use them to determine a champion. It’s also why coaches tout the rankings of their recruiting classes each February. The issue is that they assume something that maybe they shouldn’t. That the roster is being managed correctly.
I’ve said this before but during the coaching search Stephen Godfrey reported that multiple power five coaches told him that Louisville had the worst roster they’d ever seen. What they meant by that was that the roster wasn’t balanced. It wasn’t that there was no talent. We all knew that there were spots on this team that had guys that could play. What the roster didn’t have was depth in any spots outside of wide receiver. That was due to recruiting unbalanced classes.
It’s important to look at the big picture when you look at recruiting. Each class can look great on paper and the rankings might tell you the class is great. But does it address needs? Does it have the right number of players at each position? Those are things that get missed because of the focus on rankings.
So how did the roster end up in this situation? Bobby Petrino placed a premium on skill position players and didn’t address attrition like he should have. Before he was fired, Petrino lost 25 signees to some form of attrition. Guys didn’t qualify, transferred, were kicked off the team, or just quit the sport. That’s an entire recruiting class over a five year period. That doesn’t include guys that just never contributed. They had plenty of wasted scholarships on top of the guys that left.
Louisville lost players at every position outside of special teams but there was one spot where they showed no emphasis to replenish their losses. The defensive line was an absolute afterthought under Bobby Petrino and the 2017 class showed that. UofL signed Malik Clark in that class. That’s it. Louisville was his only FBS offer and he was considered an outside linebacker by some. Defensive line is no different than the quarterback spot. You just can’t go a class without adding guys.
Louisville mostly played six defensive linemen in 2016. DeAngelo Brown, Drew Bailey, Devonte Fields, De’Asian Richardson, and Kyle Shortridge were all upperclassmen. Even with that being known, they only added one defensive lineman in the 2017 recruiting class. That fallout from that decision is still being felt today.
Bobby Petrino’s staff signed seven defensive linemen in the 2016 class. James DeMatto never made it to campus. Kordell Slater ended up transferring and quit the sport. Chris Williams was kicked off the team. Mike Boykin didn’t qualify. Tabarius Peterson played outside linebacker in the 3-4 defense. All of a sudden you’re down to two guys from that class. Following that up with just one addition ended up killing the defensive front.
Using the 247 composite rankings, Petrino only signed three linemen that ranked in the top five spots in their recruiting classes. That’s on either side of the ball. So it makes sense that UofL only had six scholarship offensive linemen when Scott Satterfield took over. It also became obvious as the year went on that they didn’t have enough guys on the defensive line. That started in 2017 and not nearly enough was done to fix that situation.
The previous staff didn’t place a premium on the defensive front. It’s obvious when you look at the defensive line. It’s more obvious when you consider that they only signed 4 front seven players in the 2017 class total. They oversaw a roster with a ton of upperclassmen up front and they signed four guys to replace those players while signing three receivers to a group that already had 11 on the roster.
Fans are understandably frustrated with the state of the defense. I spent this year thinking that they would improve as the year went on. The offenses they would face were not nearly as good as the teams they faced early on. But the results were inconsistent and then embarrassing.
Bryan Brown told the media during bowl prep that even with the 2020 class signing 7 front seven players during the early signing period they’re still nowhere near where they need to be from a depth standpoint. The roster that this staff took over had some talent and the staff did a good job of utilizing that talent. This staff also took over one of the worst rosters in the country and it will take time for them to fix the issues that snuck right past us.
There are consequences to recruiting. Sometimes you end up with a generational quarterback who changes the way the sport is played. Sometimes you end up with an offensive line that can’t protect him. The real consequences come in the long term. They creep up on you without much warning and they take time to show up. Right now we’re seeing the consequences of a staff that kept feeding the studs while starving the guys up front.