If fans have been focused on the return of Bobby Petrino and the thought of what the returning players will do in his offense, nobody could blame them. But the offense isn't the only side of the ball learning a new system this year.
While the offense stole the show in Friday night's spring game, fans also got their first look at Todd Grantham's new 3-4 base defense. They also got a look at several new players as well as familiar faces breaking in new roles.
New, But Not Entirely New
While Todd Grantham brings with him a new defensive scheme from Georgia, it's not an entirely new scheme for the returning players. In the Big East, Louisville often faces power running teams that played in more traditional pro sets. That meant a basic 4-3 defense. Last season, with several new teams that ran various types of spread offenses moving into the AAC and Kentucky hiring Neal Brown, Louisville spent much of last year in base defenses with three down linemen.
Sophomore defensive lineman Sheldon Rankins said after last night's game, "(Todd Grantham's defense) is a lot like what we ran at the end of last year. It's a lot different than my freshman year, but, we did a lot of similar things last year. So it's not totally new." For instance, Lorenzon Mauldin routinely dropped into coverage in various zone blitz packages. Now, his permanent move to 3-4 OLB isn't nearly as big of a leap as it would have been two years ago when he was more of a traditional defensive end, always playing with his hand down.
Strength at Linebacker
The 2013 defense was exceptionally strong right up the middle. With experienced players at defensive tackle, middle linebacker, and both safety spots, Louisville was never vulnerable in the middle. This year, the linebacker position is easily the strength of the team and should flourish in Grantham's new defense.
Lorenzo Mauldin will be a full time outside linebacker and has the speed to cover backs and tight ends in the flat, but will still have plenty of opportunities to rush the passer. James Burgess might have been Louisville's best linebacker by the end of last season. Keith Brown, who excelled as a freshman before being dogged by a lingering injury last season, is back at full speed and will be back in the middle as well. Redshirt freshman James Hearns had a great spring game and Keith Kelsey, one of the few true freshmen to play last season, will also see plenty of playing time.
Safety the Biggest Question Mark
For the first time in three seasons, Louisville's secondary won't be manned by Hakeem Smith and Calvin Pryor. The two were as dependable a pair of safeties as a team could ask for and their absence showed Friday night. That doesn't mean it's necessarily time to panic, but it's something to watch as Louisville heads into fall camp. Jermaine Reve is Louisville's most experienced safety and was unable to play in the spring game. Gerod Holliman has seen minimal playing time but now stands poised to take over one of the open safety positions as well.
Chucky Williams redshirted as a freshman due to an injury but had a productive spring and had an interception in the spring game. As he continues to learn the defense, he'll have plenty of chances to push for playing time at free safety. Much like last year, Louisville intends to use its safeties in support of the run game and that could also mean a bigger player like February signee Michael Johnson could see the field early and often to perhaps slide into Calvin Pryor's role as enforcer in the middle of the field.
In all, the terminology and teachers are different, but the scheme isn't completely foreign to the returning players. There's enough young talent in the front seven that Louisville should not struggle to pressure the passer. That will be needed as the secondary continues to search for answers as safety between now and the Labor Day evening opener against Miami.