By Jeff Milby–

It’s our second look at the defense in our football position breakdown series, and this week we’ll be checking in with Louisville’s linebackers. Last week, we looked at the defensive line.

The defense of new coordinator Peter Sirmon looks a little different on the depth chart than in the recent past. The change in leadership comes with the nominal switch to a 4-3 defensive scheme, but Sirmon says that this will be a personnel driven defense that isn’t married to a particular front. Experience is scattered, with two young ex-safeties occupying starting linebacker positions on the preseason depth chart, along with a couple of talented veterans.

Keith Kelsey has departed, taking a team high 93 tackles with him. With that in mind, here are the players fans can expect to see at linebacker for the Louisville defense in 2017.

Projected Starters:

James Hearns

2016 Stats: 43 tackles (11 for loss), 8 sacks

Hearns was a star in the first half of his junior season for the Louisville defense, leading the pass rush. Through the first four games of 2016, the 6-foot-3, 248 lbs. Hearns had accumulated 4.5 sacks, on pace for double-figures. By season’s end, though, he had mounted just eight, the team high.

Playing opposite a healthy Trevon Young this season, offensive lines will have more threats to account for, and Hearns should see more opportunities to get into the backfield. If he can maintain his high level of play throughout the season, he could play a big part in a potent Louisville pass rush.

Hearns is on the preseason watch list for the Dick Butkus Award, given annually to the best linebacker in the country.

Stacy Thomas

2016 Stats: 85 tackles (7.5 for loss), 1 sack, 1 interception, 2 fumble recoveries

Thomas enters his senior season as the leading returning tackler for this defense. He is expected to be the leader of the group as the starting middle linebacker. Thomas ended the 2016 season well, totaling double-figure tackles in the final two games of the season, including the bowl game.

Thomas continued that string of strong through Spring Practice, standing out in the Red-White Spring game.

Khane Pass

2016 Stats: 19 tackles (1.5 for loss)

Pass is one of two converted safeties who will line up as linebackers this season for Sirmon’s new defensive scheme.

Pass played sparingly a year ago as a redshirt freshman safety, but is expected to take on a larger role farther up the field this season. With Young and Hearns supplying the pressure on the quarterback, Pass will be leaned on in coverage of the aerial attack, using his defensive back skills to pick up running backs, tight ends and inside receivers.

London Iakopo

2016 Stats: 5 tackles

The other converted safety, Iakopo played in just five games a year ago as a sophomore. A high school star at Southern California athletic powerhouse Mater Dei, Iakopo will need to develop the talent that saw him rated as a four-star recruit coming our of junior college in the 2016 class.

Key Backups:

Aside from Thomas and Hearns, experience is lacking in the linebacker corps. Among the players listed in the preseason depth chart, only one, Issac Stewart, has significant playing time. Stewart is listed behind Thomas at the middle linebacker spot, and had the third-most tackles in 2016 among returning linebackers, with 24, including one tackle for loss along with a sack. Stewart should expect to see significant playing time, yet again, as Thomas’ chief backup.

You can follow Jeff Milby on twitter @j_milbz.

File photo / The Louisville Cardinal