Louisville’s defense took a major step backward last season. There’s no way to sugarcoat the issues that led to lost leads and flat-out embarrassing losses. But the numbers show that the defense performed similarly to the 2020 defense that finished ranked 39th in total defense per game. The yards per play were similar as well as the points per game. So how did they end up being such an issue?
Consistency is the answer as they held two opponents out of the endzone last season while also allowing three teams to score five or more touchdowns in a game. I won’t even get into the fourth quarter numbers because it’s genuinely traumatizing but those two things are how a team puts up similar yardage and scoring numbers but is noticeably worse.
Scott Satterfield and Bryan Brown made a plan this year to address some of the shortcomings on that side of the ball. They brought in Wes McGriff to bring a veteran presence to the leadership of the defense. They also attacked the portal hard with the addition of six defensive backs and a veteran replacement for CJ Avery. If they can add Jermayne Lole or a different veteran nose tackle, this revamped defense could turn the corner and be solid at the very least.
Zach Edwards/Victoine Brown
Louisville needs a big year from Yaya Diaby if this defense is to take a step forward. Diaby is being enough to hold up against the run and he has the athleticism to be a strong pass rusher. He just needs to actually show his ability consistently.
Depth at this spot will be interesting to monitor as Mason Reiger played a lot of snaps last season as a walk-on with great length and solid pass-rushing skills. However, guys like Victoine Brown and Zach Edwards have a little more experience now and they should push their way onto the field.
I don’t think it’s hyperbole to say that this position is the most important unknown on the team. Louisville loses two veteran guys from last year but they return a core group of guys that they recruited to play in their scheme.
Mark Ivey made it pretty clear that Dez Tell was the first man up when he spoke to the media during spring practice. Tell is now listed at 285 pounds and I’d imagine he will get up to 290 or so when the season starts. If he can keep his quickness, he could become a disruptive player up front.
Caleb Banks is the guy that will be the key to this position. Banks is 6-6/305 and he looked impressive this spring from the small sample size we got to see. He is just too big to block with one player. If he can consistently demand double teams, it would allow the linebackers to run free to make plays in the run game. It’s quite literally the biggest issue they had in the games where they got gashed on inside runs.
Something to look out for here is the addition of a veteran transfer. I would expect that player to be a big body that would help to add size to the group.
The major bright spot for the defensive line last year was Ashton Gillotte. As a true freshman, he finished the year with 8 tackles for loss and 4 sacks. If he can improve on those numbers, and the rest of the guys up front can help contribute, we could see this group at least move away from being a weakness of the defense.
This is another spot where the depth will be very interesting. Ramon Puryear is a guy that I think could put on more weight this summer to become a better player against the run. Rhyeem Craig recorded one tackle last year and it was a tackle for loss and a sack, as well. He’s undersized, but he is a likely option in passing situations.
Louisville got their best player back this year with Yasir Abdullah returning for his final year. Abdullah probably needed another year in school but he could’ve looked to transfer and find a spot where he could have played a different role. The defense will need him to be as productive as he was last year even if he doesn’t finish with as many sacks. Making plays in the run game and getting pressure on the quarterback is how he really impacts the game and they need it from him.
Nick Okeke has moved on which will open the door for Kam Wilson to get more snaps. Wilson has been mentioned by the coaching staff as a guy they’re high on for two years now and I expect him to be a backup that will allow the staff to give Abdullah a rest without a huge dropoff.
With Popeye Williams, Louisville adds a guy who could at the very least be a pass rusher in sub-packages. UofL utilized some players in that type of role last season and Williams should at least get the chance to do the same. In a perfect world, Williams and Wilson will both provide the staff with productive backups for Abdullah.
Louisville gets Monty Montgomery back which will be a big boost to a defense in need of playmakers. Monty excelled as a situational pass rusher when he first arrived on campus but he has also shown that he can rack up tackles defending the run. An extra year in the system and the potential of an improved defensive line are both very important to how productive Monty can be.
The lack of veteran depth and Monty’s injury led to the emergence of some younger players who gained valuable experience. KJ Cloyd got plenty of snaps and his athleticism has gotten him on the field since he first got to campus. More experience in the system should help him be more productive when he gets out there.
CJ Avery has moved on to the NFL but the staff did a great job of mining the transfer portal to try to replace his leadership and production. Momo Sanogo is one of the most experienced players in the country and he has put up strong numbers in the past. His leadership and ability to help this young group progress will be an important part of what he brings to the team.
Louisville has some strong depth here with Dorian Jones getting a ton of snaps last season as the starter replacing Monty as well as the backup for Avery. He ended the season with 48 tackles and 4 tackles for loss. He could very well end up being the starter this year but even if he isn’t, he provides the type of depth this team has needed. He can play both inside linebacker spots and allow give the starters a real rest for a full series.
Though this is a position with significant changes, it’s one of the most interesting as well. Jack Fagot had a strong start to the 2021 season but his production tailed off as the season went on. When Marvin Dallas stepped in as the starter, he showed that he can be a reliable playmaker.
Even with Dallas having more experience, I expect Ben Perry to be the starter this fall. He started in the spring showcase the team put on and Perry was recruited to play this spot once he was ready for it. After putting on about 30 pounds since he got to campus, Perry should be ready to step into this role and be productive. They need consistent production at this position and they haven’t really had it since Rodjay Burns left.
Louisville’s defense really took a nosedive when Kei’Trel Clark was lost for the season. They had some success without Monty Montgomery but losing their top two defenders wasn’t sustainable without strong depth to replace them. Clark being back is very big for Louisville as he can match up with the opposing team’s top receiver.
Chandler Jones is the veteran of the group and he should still see the field plenty in sub-packages as well as when Clark needs a series off. Jones has played well at times during his career but he is inconsistent. I think he could be in a better position to be reliable this year as a nickel/slot corner as opposed to playing outside. Jones has shown that he can be a good blitzer off the edge and he is a strong tackler in run support.
This is where UofL has upgraded the most in my opinion. Quincy Riley was one of the top cornerbacks in the country when it comes to production last season. He nearly led the nation in interceptions per game as well as total passes defended per game. Throw in his 4.5 tackles for loss and it’s easy to see how he could take over the starting spot opposite Clark.
Brownlee won’t allow Riley or even Clark to relegate him to the bench. After starting at FSU last year, he isn’t coming to Louisville to not play. While these additions will add versatility and depth which is truly needed, the competition to the be starter is just as important. This team needs competitive position battles. We’re getting it in the running back room, on the offensive line, the nose tackle spot, and we will get it here.
There are also four other players who will provide depth at corner. Jayden Williams is a transfer from USC who played a reserve role for the last two years. He is a bit of an unknown but he has power five experience and he is the biggest corner in the room. Trey Franklin is also back for his second year with the team along with Rance Conner and Derrick Edwards. Those three guys took nearly all of the snaps at corner in the spring. Don’t be surprised if they take that step forward and push for playing time.
One of the strongest positions on the defense this year should be free safety. Kenderick Duncan had a good season in his first year at Louisville and after recovering from a shoulder injury, he should be ready to make a bigger impact. Duncan was Honorable Mention All-ACC last season but there is room for him to improve in coverage.
Josh Minkins is this year’s “player that the coaches can’t stop talking about”. He ended last year with 17 tackles and an interception but he should be primed for an expanded role this year after a full spring with no injuries and no one else to share snaps with. Minkins has put on noticeable weight and he looked very comfortable with the first group this spring.
Louisville will have a completely new group at strong safety after essentially having three total safeties last season. Ben Perry has moved down to Card and the staff has brought in three new safeties to compete for the spot. M.J. Griffin came in from Temple this spring and he impressed with his speed and the way he quickly picked up the defense. I think the head start he has on the others will lead to him being the starter.
Jalen Alexander could be a key to the defensive improvement this year if his versatility can be utilized. He played in a “rover” type of role for Duke the last two years. That role asked him to play as a slot corner as well as a safety and from what I’ve seen he could probably play as an outside corner if needed.
I don’t know just how Nicario Harper will fit into the plans but he is another player coming from a lower level who played at a very high level. Qwynnterrio Cole had a good year for UofL last season and Harper had very similar accolades as he was an All-American at the FBS level. I don’t think he’s as athletic as Cole but I thought Harper showed real ability when it comes to tackling in space and filling gaps in run support. I would have liked to see more from him in coverage, however.
The punting game was a little disappointing last season with Mark Vassett not being a true weapon when it comes to flipping the field. If he can help the defense by pushing teams back inside their 20, it could go a long way for the overall performance of the team.
I truly don’t know who will be returning punts for Louisville as they have a handful of guys who fit the mold for the role. Braden Smith manned the spot last year before he was injured so he could take it back now that he’s healthy. I could also see Ahmari Huggins-Bruce as an option as he has shown his quickness, ability to make people miss, and top-end speed.
A wildcard here is Devaughn Mortimer. The freshman has amazing ability in the open field and I don’t expect the staff to shy away from using his skills this season. Jahwar Jordan could also be an option.