Louisville’s linebackers did just about everything last season. They led the team in tackles, made tons of plays behind the line of scrimmage, and they did just enough in pass coverage to help the defense as a whole. Nearly all of the players that made those plays are now gone. UofL was going to be pretty young from a depth standpoint no matter what but the transfer portal hit them hard here after the coaching change and it was pretty hard to replenish those losses.
Having said that, I think plenty of people were pleasantly surprised by what this group showed in the spring and specifically during the spring game. Guys were playing fast and making plays and the only argument afterward was about which player played the best. While these guys won’t likely end up with a bunch of sacks like we saw last season, it’s fair to say they will be in on a lot of tackles and won’t be a weakness like it was once expected.
It’s been tough to establish who will be the starters in the middle but as of now, I think TJ Quinn will hold down one spot. Quinn had solid showings late last season as he finished the season with 9 tackles in 54 total snaps. He showcased a good ability to tackle in space and while I’m not sure about his foot speed, he had no issue playing inside the box.
Jackson Hamilton seems like a good bet to man the other inside linebacker spot and he has been the most impressive player for me since the spring. Hamilton plays very fast and he brings some serious power when he goes in for a hit. I thought the best trait he showed was the ability to see a gap in the line and shoot it to make a play behind the line.
It’s hard to know how the staff views the hybrid LB/DB position in this defense but it very much looks like the “Card” spot to me which was more of a linebacker than defensive back. Ben Perry returns to his spot in the defense and he still looks like a guy that will be a star at some point in his career. Perry was the odd man out with Bryan Brown playing a lot more nickel last season and his numbers show it. However, Perry still finished the season with 43 tackles, 3 PBUs, and a tackle for loss. He still has to show he can make impact plays but i think more time on the field will allow him to do so.
Antonio Watts was the star of the spring for me and I think he will see significant minutes this fall. There was a lot of talk about Watts after fall camp last year but he never saw the field for whatever reason. My assumption is that he was not healthy but Watts was also a tweener coming out of high school. With Marvin Dallas graduating, Watts has a clear role as Perry’s backup and he has looked like a guy who could steal a starting spot as opposed to just a depth piece. He is great in coverage and his size allows him to be a great edge setter in this role.
The biggest threat to the starters at inside linebacker is Stanquan Clark, in my opinion. He looked outstanding in the spring game though he wasn’t as noticeable throughout the practices. He showed it all in the spring game where he used his instincts and speed to beat blockers against the run and make solid tackles at the point of attack. Clark is a former safety, so you hope that pass coverage won’t be a huge issue but I don’t know that this scheme will put the linebackers in much more than zone coverage from what I’ve seen. Clark has the potential to be an impact freshman.
The remaining options at inside linebacker are interesting, to say the least. Gilbert Frierson comes to Louisville after an up-and-down career at Miami. At the very least he provides versatility and a veteran presence. Keith Brown comes in from Oregon and has a chance to press for a starting spot or at least a rotational role. Jaylin Alderman ran with the first team throughout the entire open practice I was able to attend this fall. I would expect him to be the first option up behind Quinn. Jack Reiger also continues to get reps with the second team.
Then you have T.J. Capers. The highly touted freshman will likely find his way onto the field once he’s healthy. His role and position have yet to be determined but from what I’ve heard, Capers is close to being ready to play. We may see him as an edge rusher before he plays anywhere else, but I think it’s safe to say that he will make a few highlight plays this season.
I think Watts will be the “local” breakout guy who makes plays that resonate with the fanbase. However, I think he is behind Perry for snaps which will keep him from making a major impact. Capers is also a guy that will get recognition even if he doesn’t put up big numbers. I just don’t know that he will be a “breakout” type of player with him being currently injured.
My pick here is a little boring but I think TJ Quinn will be a steady force in the middle of the defense and his numbers will garner some notice in the ACC. Quinn has shown that he can make plays in zone coverage and I think that will be important with the potential of the defensive line getting pressure. Pair that with the potential of the line keeping the linebackers clean and free to make plays against the run and Quinn could have a strong year.