The UofL defense improved markedly last season after one subtle change. MJ Griffin was inserted into the starting lineup against Virginia and the defense went on to deliver consistent results for the rest of the year. Griffin was a key factor in the improvement and the expectation was that he would take on an increased role this year. Unfortunately, Griffin is out for the season with an injury and the staff will have to figure out how to replace him with newcomers as well as returning talent.
With Griffin out, Josh Minkins will have to take a step forward as a leader and playmaker. Minkins was the most improved defender on the team last season, in my opinion. However, Minkins has work to do from a consistency standpoint. Minkins missed his fair share of tackles last year and although he wasn’t the works in this department, he has to improve. this is where his value is and I think a healthy offseason will help him improve.
The jury is still out on who will replace Griffin but my first guess is Devin Neal. Neal is a transfer from Baylor with experience playing different roles in a defense. He arrived in the spring and though he missed some time with an injury, he looked the part when I got to see him out there.
Cam’Ron Kelly is the next logical option to replace Griffin but at 6-2/210, I wonder if he’s a better fit in the hybrid DB/LB role where he can be more of a linebacker than safety. Kelly was All-ACC two years ago when he pulled in 4 interceptions but he struggled in coverage last year and saw his numbers decline across the board. I don’t know that any one player will take on the responsibility of replacing Griffin, so we could see a rotation of Neal and Kelly.
During the spring when Josh Minkins was out with an injury, D’Angelo Hutchinson stepped in with the first group and made a good amount of plays. Hutchinson is a long athlete and he knows how to use his length in coverage. I was impressed at how he covered guys in the middle of the field while not being too sticky and risking a penalty. He was also solid when the team was tackling during practice and show no fear when it came to coming up and lowering a shoulder. After logging more snaps than any other freshman last season, it may be time for a larger role for Hutchinson.
Griffin was my breakout candidate for the entire team, so there’s not really an option here now that he is out of the lineup. I’m not sure this scheme turns Minkins into a star but I think he will continue to be a strong player for the defense. Hutchinson is the guy that I feel the best about when it comes to taking a step forward. We haven’t heard how long he will be out with his injury but if he comes back towards the beginning of the season, I would look for him to make an impact.