The Louisville defense returns the bulk from a squad that finished among the nation's best group's in 2015, but the voids created by graduation will need to be filled and spring is the opportunity for players to step into a larger role and help continue the defensive tradition established under coordinator Todd Grantham.
The team will begin its spring work on Tuesday, with an open practice session at 3:50 p.m.. Here's a few defensive storylines to watch during the coming weeks as the team preps for the 2016 season.
How will the defense replace the production of projected NFL first round defensive lineman Sheldon Rankins? Call it priority number one and it won't be easy. In fact, replacing Rankins will prove difficult for any one player to do this fall. The versatile end, who finished second on the team with 13 tackles for a loss and was third with six sacks, was an important leader for the defensive front, both on and off the field. Experienced reserves Drew Bailey and James Hearns, along with underclassmen G.G. Robinson, Johnny Richardson and Kyle Shortridge will be among the group vying to fill open spot on the depth chart.
The departure of James Burgess creates an opening at linebacker. Who steps up to fill that void? With a pair of talented reserves in Issac Stewart and Stacey Thomas returning, the loss of Burgess will be lessened. The status of Trevon Young, who suffered a significant injury in the Music City Bowl victory, also creates an absence among the linebacking corp. Competition at the spot should be high as players who redshirt last fall - Amonte Caban and Johnathon Greenard - are prepping to work for a spot in the lineup.
Look for improvement in the secondary. The Cardinals secondary was solid last season, finishing among the nation's top 50, but it struggled with consistency against pass-oriented offenses. With all four starters returning - Josh Harvey-Clemson and Chucky Williams at safety and cornerbacks Shaq Wiggins and Trumaine Washington - improvement can be expected. Toss in a talented depth chart, which includes Jaire Alexander, Zykiesis Cannon, Dee Smith and Cornelius Sturghill, and the group is poised for greater things in 2016.
New defensive coaches impact. Bobby Petrino added Keith Heyward as the defensive backs coach and Cort Dennison, as a secondary assistant, during the off season and their presence should be noticeable quickly. Heyward, who arrived from USC, will be experiencing his first spring as a member of the Cardinals staff, while Dennison has worked under Petrino for three seasons, two as a graduate assistant and last season as Director of On-Campus Recruiting. Look for Heyward to put his fingerprint on the Cardinals secondary quickly.
Players stepping up. Spring is always a time when players who spent last season as a redshirt or primarily as a special teams performer step into a larger role and become more of an impact player. The defense has a number of players that will be looked upon to step up in responsibilities and performance. Here's a few names to watch during the open practices:
- Dee Smith: The 6-foot-1, 200-pound sophomore safety appeared in six games last fall, totaling seven tackles and an interception.
- G.G. Robinson: A redshirt freshman, the 6-foot-4, 290-pound defensive tackle has the opportunity to make an impact early in his career.
- Kyle Shortridge: The junior, who saw time in 12 games as a reserve defensive lineman in 2015, is in position to become the latest difference-maker to play along the Cardinals defensive front.
- Johnny Richardson: Lost for the season after just two games in 2015, the 6-foot-3, 322-pound Richardson has the ability to be a force this fall.