You won’t find a position group on the Louisville Football team that will get more attention this year than the defensive line. Quarterbacks make the headlines and skill position players make the highlights. But, the big guys up front are the guys that win the games and UofL hasn’t been all that great up front on defense. The group showed improvement last season but if the defense is to take a step forward this season, this group will be key.
Let’s start in the middle where the defense has struggled the most over the last few years. While they have improved each season against the run, teams still expose the inconsistency of the defensive front. Their issues last season started up front with a failure to consistently disrupt the offense. That should change this year with the addition of Jermayne Lole.
Lole comes to Louisville as one of the top transfers in the country. The former Arizona State defensive lineman will play the nose tackle spot for the Cards after playing defensive end and defensive tackle at ASU. Lole has the quickness and strength needed to get past blockers as well as push them around and hold his ground. With NFL aspirations, he also has the motivation to play at a high level.
The staff has been very vocal in their praise for Dezmond Tell this summer. Tell has put on “good weight” this offseason and he is now playing at close to 300 pounds. What stands out about the coach's comments is that he is playing faster. If Tell can live up to the expectations, the staff could have two options to really set the tone for the defense in the middle.
The depth in the middle could also be bolstered by some other young players. Caleb Banks is up to 305 pounds and looks great physically. Jared Dawson is in his third year and could be ready to make an impact as a reserve. Then you have Tafiq Thomas who got a mention from Mark Ivey last week as a player that has impressed him. That’s four different 300-pound nose tackles that Ivey has to work with. A welcomed change.
At the defensive end spots, Louisville has some returning production at the top of the depth chart. Ashton Gillotte had a strong true freshman season with 8 tackles for loss and 4 sacks. At times, it was extremely obvious that he was just playing on instinct and didn’t always know what he was doing but his strength and athleticism were on full display last year. A year in the system and in the weight room will help him sustain his play throughout the year.
One of the most important players on the team this year will be Yaya Diaby. While he gained some notoriety this summer for his PFF grades and things like pressures, he just didn’t produce the havoc stats that UofL needed him to. Diaby finished last season with 3 tackles for loss and 1.5 sacks. Those are the stats that truly impact a drive or impact the game as a whole. At 285 pounds, Diaby couldn’t possibly look better as a football player. The superhero physique won’t matter much if he can’t be the impact player the defense needs, however.
Depth at the end spots is somewhat underwhelming, in my opinion. While the staff has brought in some talent, they will still rely on Ramon Puryear and Mason Reager as their key backups. While I think both players are solid and have shown flashes as playmakers, it does not bode well that the team is still relying on players who came to campus as walk-ons. Reager looked solid as a pass rusher last season and his 6-4/254 frame is great for a situational player on third downs or pass situations.
Some of the players that I would like to see this season are Zach Edwards, Victoine Brown, and Ryheem Craig. Craig had a very nice sack last season in his only game action. Edwards is a veteran player now but we have not seen him consistently earn playing time. He has shown flashes at times but I would love to see him be a consistent option in the rotation. Brown was a highly sought-after recruit who came in very undersized as a freshman. He is listed at 6-4/241 on the roster, so I’m not sure if he has enough size to get consistent snaps.
I think Ryheem Craig has the potential to be a really good pass rusher for Louisville this season. While he won’t lead the team in sacks or anything like that, he could become a pass-rushing specialist who is reliable and effective. Teams will make a plan for Yasir Abdullah this year so the staff will need others to take advantage of that. Craig could be a guy that plays opposite of Abdullah and reaps the benefits.