As the University of Louisville football program began preparations for the 2014 season, the team's group of linebackers were among the deepest and most talented units.
Despite the loss of starting middle linebacker Preston Brown to the NFL Draft, the linebackers returned plenty from a season ago. Bolstered by the return of junior Keith Brown, who missed most of 2013 and spring recovering from injury, along with the addition of prior defensive ends Lorenzo Mauldin and Deiontrez Mount, it is a group that is now focused on becoming one of the nation's best.
Junior James Burgess and sophomore Keith Kelsey are currently the first team inside linebackers, with Mauldin and Mount manning the outside. Improving significantly each time out, Brown is currently splitting time between the first and second units, joining a rotation that includes redshirt freshman Stacy Thomas and freshman Isaac Stewart on the inside. Nick Dawon, Trevon Young, Finesse Middleton and Henry Famurewa are running with the second team outside linebackers.
Brown, who earned Freshman All-American honors following the 2012 season, believes the group has the talent to become one of the best linebacking corps in the nation.
“I think we are sleeper group of the whole team,” he said. “I think we'll come out and show everyone this year that we can be the top linebacking corp in the nation. I just want to go out there and show the world.”
A starter in all 13 games last fall and the team's top-returning tackler, Burgess agrees and credits the players off season work for giving them such confidence.
“I feel like we can be number one in the country, as well,” he said. “We're all looking really good. We all bulked up this off season. We all gained 10-15 pounds.”
Impressed by what he has seen through the first two weeks of practice, defensive coordinator and outside linebackers coach Todd Grantham stresses that they must keep that determination and continue to improve.
“I've been pleased with Kelsey and Burgess, and really Stacy Thomas because we moved him inside,” said Grantham. “I think all those guys have qualities that can help us. They've done a good job of communicating early in practice. We just have to develop and learn the scheme. I like the direction we're heading, but it's like everything, you have to keep building blocks and creating that foundation. These guys have a done a good job of that early, but we have to keep getting better.”
The move to the 3-4 scheme brings Mauldin and Mount into the linebackers room and strengthens the group.
“I think it was a pretty good adjustment,” Kelsey said. “Lozo is a great pass rusher. Mount is just an athlete – he can rush off the edge or get in the pass drop. I think it was a real good adjustment for us.”While they're primary responsibility will be to rush the quarterback, inside linebackers coach Tony Grantham explained that the inside guys, and others, would be there to assist in most cases when they are asked to drop in pass coverage.
“It kind of depends on what the call with be, but we don't ask those guys to do a lot,” said Grantham. “You limit their space because they are going to make their money rushing the passer. When they do drop in coverage, you want to give them some help over there and you want to keep it isolated in a small area.”
Already performing well during the first two weeks of practice, the group displays frequent signs of improvement and communication has been the key.
“I feel like we are light years ahead of where we were, as far as communication,” said Burgess. “Getting everybody set, everybody knowing what to do, on the same page and flying to the ball.”
Deiontrez Mount, senior
Playing behind Philadelphia Eagles first-round selection Marcus Smith, along with an injury that sidelined him for three games, Mount's time on the field was limited in 2013. Playing an outside linebacker role and being at the top of the depth chart will provide the 6-foot-5, 246-pounder a chance to excel.
While he didn't play in Saturday's scrimmage, Mount has had a solid fall camp. He's also becoming one of the vocal leaders on defense.
“He's a true leader,” said Tony Grantham. “He's a guy that's very vocal and communicates very well. I'm very encouraged by him.”
Mount has appeared in 31 games, making 8 starts during his Cardinal career.
Thomas opened camp as an outside linebacker, but was moved inside pretty quickly. While he'll be playing behind the more experienced players, the Cardinals more aggressive 3-4 scheme will have the redshirt freshman seeing plenty of action this fall.
Thomas, who suffered a hand injury earlier in camp, was a three-star prospect out of Charlotte (N.C.) Butler High School, where he earned All-State honors after leading his team in tackles.
*Redshirt freshman linebacker Lyn Clark has decided to transfer. Clark began camp on the inside, but was moved behind Mount on the outside after Thomas was moved in.
*Keith Brown split reps with Kelsey as the first team backer during Saturday's scrimmage.
*True freshman Isaac Stewart is also one to watch. The 6-foot-2, 240-pounder has had an impressive fall camp.
*Also posted is a video preview of the Cardinal linebackers.
*Also coming is a feature on Lorenzo Mauldin and the changes that being a linebacker provides, along with James Burgess, who started all 13 games last season.
*Up next in our series is a look at the Special Teams.