Position series: Defensive backs

Cardinal Authority is running a position series as a new preseason football feature to help you get familiar with the entire University of Louisville roster. The fourth day of the series takes a look at the defensive back position.

OVERVIEW

With all four starters back among the defensive backs, the University of Louisville coach staff is expecting big things from the secondary.

And coach Charlie Strong has stressed it several times.

Strong and defensive coordinator Vance Bedford point out the secondary had only 10 interceptions last season after nine the previous year.

"We have to get out hands on more balls," Bedford said. "We can't give up the big play and we have to get more interceptions this season."

The Cardinals have the talent to do just that this fall.

Senior Adrian Bushell, who came into the program at the start of last season, ended up making Big East All-Conference honors and is considered one of the best pro prospects among those in the senior class.

Bushell will start at one corner, while junior Hakeem Smith has become one of the team leaders and will start at strong safety.

Sophomore Calvin Pryor is back at free safety, while sophomore Andrew Johnson is also returning at the other cornerback spot.

"We are still young out there," said Bedford, noting "but they're talented."

Redshirt sophomore Stefan Robinson, sophomore Terrell Floyd and junior Titus Teague appear to be able to provide some depth in the secondary.

True freshman Gerod Holliman comes with a lot of hype and could see the field, along with freshman Devontre Parnell. Strong said it's easier for defensive backs and wide receivers to make it into the rotation as a freshman.

"They have a chance there," Strong said.

The secondary does have one major change – a coach. Tommy Restivo is the new defensive backs coach after spending two years as a graduate assistant at U of L. The former Georgetown College player was also a graduate assistant at Marshall and then for one season at Florida when Strong was the defensive coordinator.

"We're expecting a lot better year as a unit," Restivo said. "I'm learning from the greatest defensive backs coach in America – coach Bedford. It's an adjustment for us all, but they guys are really coming along.

"A lot of (interceptions) is about being in the right place at the right time and then just making the play. We have to make some plays."

Strong said the wide receivers are really helping the defensive backs improve because of the level the offensive guys have been playing in camp.

"The competition is good with our wide receivers and defensive backs," Strong said. "It's really good because they're going against a good group of wide receivers that can put pressure on them, they can go up and get the ball from them and they're fast enough where they can run by them."

BREAKOUT PERFORMER

Hakeem Smith, junior

Smith (6-1, 180) was a first-team All-Big East Conference player last season but expected to be a bigger part of the defense this season.

Now, Smith is not only a playmaker but a leader.

Hakeem Smith is by far one of my favorite players," Bedford said. "He's not big enough or fast enough, but some how he makes plays. And why does he make plays? Because he can think."

Smith has started 25 of 26 games during his career and has 172 tackles after being the co-second leading tackles last season with 84. But he didn't have an interception as a freshman and had just one last season.

The coaches believe he will add to that total and help the defense in other ways, including being a vocal leader in the middle.

"Hakeem has played two years in our program and he has come a long way," Restivo said. "He's starting to step up and be more vocal. He needs to be more because the young guys really look up to him.

SLEEPER

Gerod Holliman, freshman

The 6-foot, 190-poun native of Miami originally committed to Mississippi and then changed his mind and was headed to the Cardinals.

The former U.S. Army All-American signed with U of L in 2011 but didn't make it to campus because of academics. He spent last season at Milford Academy and was one of the top prep school players in the country.

Now, he's finally at U of L.

Holliman was running with the second team during the two open practices earlier in camp and has been mentioned several times by Strong and Bedford.

He always seems to be around the ball, was ranked as one of the top 10 safeties in the country by Scout.com and has a chance to be a good one.

EXTRA POINTS

*A closer look at last season's total of 10 interceptions by the Cardinals shows six of those came in two games. U of L had three picks against Murray State and three more later in the season against Rutgers. There were seven games with no interceptions by the Cardinals.

*Pryor is the player returning with the most interceptions last season with two. Smith and Bushell had one apiece. Linebacker Dexter Heyman, who graduated, led the team last season with three picks.

*Holliman, Parnell and Kevin Houchins are the three true freshman among the group of defensive backs at U of L.

COMING UP NEXT

*Watch later today for a feature on Adrian Bushell and a look at sophomores Andrew Johnson and Calvin Pryor.

*The position series will continue tomorrow with wide receivers.


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