It's no secret that Friday night's annual University of Louisville spring football game was an offensive showcase. Showing off the installation of new head coach Bobby Petrino's offense, the first stringers, wearing red, lit-up the Papa John's Cardinal Stadium scoreboard to the tune of 56 points and nearly 700 total yards.
With that type of performance, it'd be easy to overlook the defense. But perhaps we shouldn't. The Red team defense held the White offense to just 13 points, while limiting them to a modest 252 yards of total offense on the evening. They also allowed the second-teamers to convert on just one of their nine third down attempts.
Now a starter due to the departure of seniors Brandon Dunn and Roy Philon, defensive tackle Sheldon Rankins quickly proved to be a force for the Cardinal defense. Rankins, a 6-foot-2, 287-pound rising junior, led the Red defense in tackles with five-- including 2.5 tackles for a loss and a would-have-been sack.
Individual performance aside, Rankins expressed pleasure with the defense's overall showing, as Friday night provided the first glimpse of new defensive coordinator Todd Grantham's defense.
"I was pretty pleased with the way we played," Rankins said after the game. "Aside from giving up a couple runs, other than that we played well on third down. We got off the field on third down, and that's really the key to a good defense."
The Covington, Ga., native knows he has big shoes to fill come fall. Combined, Dunn and Philon tallied 193 tackles and five sacks while anchoring a defensive unit that finished first in the nation in total defense last season. Especially in a new system, Rankins, along with fellow interior linemen DeAngelo Brown and Johnny Richardson, will be crucially important in wrecking early-down havoc in the opposing backfield.
"(We are) very important. We mainly man the A and B gaps. You take away those gaps and there's nowhere left for the ball to go but outside," Rankins said. "We do our job, we make the defense go, and everybody else can feed off of us."
Though offensive players like quarterback Will Gardner, wide receiver James Quick, and running back Michael Dyer were likely the names on the lips of fans Friday night, Rankins & Co. undoubtedly gave the 27,000 fans leaving PJCS a reason to believe that the Cardinal defense could once again be among the nation's elite.
"We just wanted to come out tonight and have a lot of passion, have a lot of energy," Rankins said. "It's something for the fans, to finally get a real look at us in live action.
"I feel like we came out there with good intensity and now we just have to go back to the drawing board and clean a few things up."