With three experienced seniors and a talented junior starting, the defensive line was the strength of the Louisville defense in 2013.
With Roy Philon, Brandon Dunn, and Marcus Smith all lost to graduation, new faces must emerge up front. Complicating things, the defensive line is taking on many new responsibilities in Todd Grantham's 3-4 defense.
One player poised to take advantage of his own size and skills and the move to a new defensive scheme is Sheldon Rankins. As a sophomore, Rankins played in 11 games and started one. He recorded 10 tackles and 3 sacks in spot duty.
Now, Rankins is poised to take over the defensive end position in a new defensive scheme, but it's not entirely Rankins.
"I feel like last year we played a lot of three-man defensive line packages so it's not totally new," he said. What is new is how Rankins is likely to be used.
The defensive end in Grantham's defenses have typically been close to 300 pounds. They're asked to slant and stunt often, and are responsible for occupying blockers and allowing linebackers and safeties to fill and make tackles. In 2013, 7 of Georgia's 8 leading tacklers were linebackers and safeties. The defensive ends had their fill of sacks and tackles for loss, but not near as much as Lousiville saw from Marcus Smith and Lorenzo Mauldin.
All of that works for Rankins, who is every bit as big as Georgia's defensive ends (6'3, 290) while being agile enough to beat blockers one on one and russ the passer. With his size as, he won't be overmatched when taking on interior linemen against the run game, either. Rankins will also enjoy the luxury of defensive tackle DeAngelo Brown being fully healthy and eating up space in the middle.
With Rankins and Brown, Louisville will look to replicate the Georgia defense by using big, agile defensive linemen to move and free up a deep and talented linebacking corps to roam free and rush the passer. Keeping blockers off of Keith Brown, Lorenzo Mauldin, James Burgess, and Keith Kelsey will be the first priority of Grantham's defense and having a versatile lineman like Rankins, who can hold his own against big linemen and who can move will be a big factor if they're successful.