Louisville’s defensive front seven ready to set the tone
By Noah Allison
Last year, much of Louisville’s number one college football defense could be attributed to the dominant play of their defensive line and linebackers.
Louisville gave up just 158 points on the whole season, giving up no more than seven points in five of their victories. The defense racked up 43 quarterback sacks, forced 23 recovered fumbles and snatched 16 interceptions.
From that record setting defense the Cards lost six impactful starters, four of which being seniors along the front seven. Middle linebacker Preston Brown led the team in tackles with 98, defensive tackles Brandon Dunn and Roy Philon had a combined 84 tackles and defensive-end Marcus Smith was second in the nation with his team leading 14.5 sacks.
With a change to defensive coordinator Todd Grantham’s three-four defense the young stars of yesterday are ready to bust out onto the ACC seen with an intense, attacking style.
With three sacks last year junior defensive linemen Sheldon Rankins comes in to fill the gap of leadership, left by once constant plugs in the middle, Dunn and Philon. Rankins leads a group of former rotational and young players that have patiently awaited their chance to take the field.
“They are doing everything they need to do, B.J. DuBose is starting his senior year and he knows he has to make it a good one since its is his last go around. Deangelo Brown is excited to get back from his Achilles injury last year. Transfer Pio Vatuvei is excited about being out there and young guys like Johnny Richardson are excited about finally getting there chance to really put their imprint on this defense. So, the trenches are looking good for us right now,” Rankins said.
Much of the base principle of the three-four is for the defensive-linemen to plug up gaps and free space for the pass rushers behind them. But an adapted, talented and athletic line can still have a noticeable impact on plays regardless of the scheme.
“Us, as a d-line, we feel like we will be able to make plays in any system we’re put in, whether it be three-four or four-three. We just know that our number will be called at some point,” Rankins said.
The transition is made smoother with exciting transfer Pio Vatuvei’s junior college experience in the three-four defense.
“I’m very familiar with it,” Vatuvei said. “This is a more attacking style of three-four defense which I’m very into right now. So, I’m just trying to pick up the scheme. It’s going very well, helping the team any way I can with the d-line position, it’s gone very well.”
For all the heavy hitters lost, Louisville was able to maintain perhaps its biggest slugger, junior middle-linebacker James Burgess.
Burgess was the third-leading tackler on the team last year with 72, 41 of which being solo tackles. This year his leadership and natural playmaking ability make him the valiant leader this defense can fearlessly follow.
“I’m just coming into this season looking to make more big plays, get better everyday and work on my weaknesses to make them my strengths,” Burgess said.
Returning from injury fellow inside linebacker Keith Brown speaks as to the energy and competitiveness Burgess brings to the defense.
“He’s a go-getter, he’s going to go get it any way he can; that’s my man right there,” Brown said. “He’s not only a vocal leader but he’s a playmaker so you’ll follow him because of the big plays he makes.”
Rankins echoes Brown’s praise of Burgess’ role on the team.
“He’s really embraced that role of being the lead guy at the middle-linebacker position. He’s really matured a lot going into this year and it has really bounced off him and hit all the other guys around him. We’re all coming in with a good mindset, just all trying to get better.”
Burgess is helping the defense overall adjust to the intense level of play in the ACC by adjusting to the high level of offensive play in this Bobby Petrino offense.
“It’s very up-tempo, very fast, very intense and we’re rapid fire with it,” Burgess described. “Coach doesn’t like running after practice so we get our conditioning in during practice so he can see how we perform when we’re tired and that’s what is most important because the fourth quarter is where you’ll win the most of your games.”
Burgess is joined by Brown who sat out most all of last year due to injury. Brown, while healthy his freshman season, performed at a very high level that helped the Cardinals reach their 9-0 record. Fully rejuvenated and ready to make an impact Brown will be a huge asset to have back along Burgess’ side.
“Its exciting just coming back on the field and being with my teammates. I had a tough time missing out that season after a big freshman year. I’m just ready to get it back rolling,” Brown said. “I have to step up and be a leader on the defensive side now. I have to take over, let people know where they have to go and I have to understand the defense fully.”
Rounding out the inside-linebackers crew is sophomore Keith Kelsey. Kelsey appeared in 12 games last season and has proven his value to coaches leading up to this season.
“He has really taken his game to the next level as far as the beginning of fall camp. He’s really got a good understanding of the defense and what we’re trying to get out of that position,” linebackers coach Tony Grantham said. “I’ve been really encouraged by that. He has a relentless work ethic so I think he has a lot of upside for us.”
Everybody knows that this isn’t last year’s team, and more importantly, this year’s players know that this is their team. Without the ability to settle for less, the new look Cards are ready to hit the ground running in the ACC. The shadow of last year’s top defense doesn’t linger over this year’s team; it resonates.
“As they left, they left us with good tools and leadership roles to follow behind,” Burgess said. “They always come back and talk to us about things they did to make the team better. It is up to us to do the things that they did and continue to have that leadership.”
Leading the assault is senior outside-linebacker Lorenzo Mauldin. Starting every game last year opposite Marcus Smith, Mauldin had 9.5 sacks, three forced-fumbles and had 40 tackles, 12 of which being for loss.
The new defense provides Mauldin with free-range access to move around and keep his point of attack fresh from play–to-play, as well as drop back into coverage.
“Now that I move around, I get to play in open space a little bit,” Mauldin said. “I’ve been dropping back into a lot of coverage too; it was sort of difficult in the beginning but now I’ve got the hang of it so it’s fun to drop back and probably get an interception or two.”
Rushing the passer opposite Mauldin will be senior outside-linebacker Deiontrez Mount.
After being a rotational player Mount will have to be a consistent threat opposite side a pass-rusher that demands as much attention as Mauldin does.
“I feel confident with Deiontrez on the other side because he’s a fast guy just like I am and he uses his hands,” Mauldin said.
“He’s been great, he is a true leader and he does a great job with those guys in the outside linebacker room,” linebackers coach Tony Grantham said of Mount’s maturity. “I’ve been really encouraged by him, he’s a tremendous worker and has a positive attitude everyday.”