While the overall defense failed to take a step forward last year, the safety position showed some real improvement. The staff went out and landed some transfer additions and finally had some consistency in the back end. The group didn’t light the world on fire but there was an obvious uptick from a performance standpoint. Louisville must replace a starter and the need for depth showed up throughout all of last season. With the players they’ve added through the portal, this group could be very good.
The lone returning starter this year is Kenderick Duncan and he is coming off of an injury from the end of the season. He sat out this spring and, according to the online roster, he has dropped a good amount of weight. With his height and aggressive style of play, I think this could be a positive as he should be able to flip his hips better and turn and run more easily. Duncan made a lot of plays last season but if Brayn Brown is to be more aggressive with his calls, he has to be able to put his secondary in tough coverage assignments. Duncan should be better off if he’s truly lighter than he was last season.
Josh Minkins is moving over to the strong safety spot after being the backup free safety for the past two years. Minkins has played in 18 games in his career and finished last season with 17 tackles and an interception. While his on-the-field experience is only solid, it is an obvious positive for him that he has been in this defensive system for three years now. He has also bulked up to about 200 pounds which has always been a concern as he has a slender frame. Minkins will have to work to keep his starting spot but I think his ability to play both safety spots bodes well for him.
I haven’t verified this but I’m fairly certain that UofL didn’t sub out their safeties at all in multiple games last year. This was especially noticeable at the strong safety spot as they just didn’t have a backup for that position. That shouldn’t be an issue this season as the staff was able to add two players with starting experience to push the starters and provide real depth.
At the free safety spot, Nicario Harper enters as an aggressive safety with good size and the ability to be very good in run support. Harper has not shown a great ability to cover but he brings versatility to the group as he can play in the box and walk down to play the Card position. Harper was an All-American at the FCS level and while I don’t believe he will come in and supplant Duncan, I do think the staff should be comfortable playing him for a series at a time to let Duncan rest. That’s an improvement from last year.
The battle at strong safety will be between Minkins and MJ Griffin. The Temple transfer comes in with a very strong athletic profile to go along with a solid season last year. Griffin posted one of the fastest times during testing this spring and his speed shows up on film. Run support is where he is at his best and I think that his coverage abilities are also a bit of an unknown as of now. Griffin is the perfect type of player for Louisville as he brings more speed and he will push the other guys to be at their best each day.
The staff has mentioned the incoming freshmen a few times but it would be a bit of a shock if we saw them on the field this year. This is less about their abilities and more about the fact that they just have not played freshmen much in the last three years. Antonio Watts is the player that keeps showing up in social media videos which is always notable. Jeremiah Caldwell likely needs to add weight before he gets on the field but I’m hopeful that he can at least find his way into some special teams snaps.
This is the toughest position to find a breakout candidate because I think they will be a really good group with no real star. With that being said, I think Josh Minkins has the best opportunity as a returner and as a guy who may be the best in coverage out of the group. Minkins threw his body around a lot last year when it came to run support and it really feels like he’s comfortable out there after getting some experience. He obviously has plenty to work on but year three should be good for him.