The departure of All-American safeties Calvin Pryor, a first round draft selection by the NY Jets, and Tennessee Titan free agent signee Hakeem Smith, created an immediate area of concern as the University of Louisville began preparing for the 2014 season this spring. Head coach Bobby Petrino, defensive coordinator Todd Grantham and safeties coach Greg Brown have made answering that concern a priority since arriving on campus.
"There's some outstanding players back from last years team," Brown told Cardinal Authority, but with new coaches, a new scheme and no minimal starting experience, the two spots remained open throughout spring.
"We're missing two great safeties from last years team," Brown continued. "It's back at square one and that's one the beauties of college football. Somebody leaves and it's someone else's turn to step up and you never know how its going to unfold."
Juniors Gerod Holliman and Jermaine Reve and redshirt freshmen Chucky Williams and Richard Benjamin competed throughout spring practice. Holliman has two career starts, while Reve has started 5 times, splitting time at both cornerback and safety. All four were highly sought after prospects out of high school and are expected to become significant contributors this fall. However, a knee injury to Reve late in spring ball added even more concern for the need for depth.
Having played behind two of the nation's best for a couple seasons has helped those now attempting to replace them.
"I have some pretty big shoes to fill with Calvin and Hakeem gone, but I feel I'm up to the challenge," Holliman said during spring drills. "It was great being around them because they showed me a lot of things. Running to the ball, knowing formations, tendencies of the offense and things like that. They helped me come along to be a better player."
The group displayed signs of improvement and had it's share of big plays during spring, but it was also inconsistent. The feedback from the coaching staff was positive for their efforts and hard work, but demanded quicker reads and decision-making.
"Talk faster and learn the formations faster with all the motion and things the offense does," Holliman said of the areas of needed improvement. "Our play depends on what formation the offense is in, so we have to do better at picking that up."
While discussing the progress of the defense following the spring game, head coach Bobby Petrino was quick to stress the need for continued improvement at the safety spots.
"We know we need to continue to work at the safety spot," he said.
To help alleviate some concerns, the coaching staff turned their attention to adding quality experience and signed a pair of junior college prospects to come in and compete this fall.
Louisville inked a pair of safeties since the completion of spring ball in former four-star and Washington Huskie safety James Sample, who spent last season at American River College in California, and Isaac Watson of College of San Mateo in California.
Both, along with incoming three-star freshman safety Michael Johnson, are expected to compete for the continued open positions when camps opens in August.
"Sometimes those jobs are won't until all the way to the start of the season," Brown explained. "We're up in the air right now, but we have guys that are competing hard, but there is definitely nothing set in stone."