Cardinal defense "still has a lot to prove"

Louisville defensive coordinator Mike Gillhamer has a Cardinal defense, that entered the season with plenty of youth and little experience, improving each week.

A year removed from a season that was filled with players that were drafted into the NFL or signed as free agents, the Louisville defense is performing at a higher level than most anticipated. Against Tulane, who entered last Saturday's game with one of the nation's most potent offenses, the Cardinal defense seemingly turned in their best performance.

Through three quarters, the defense held the Green Wave to just 14 points and only 240 total yards of offense. With a comfortable lead of 34-17 built with over 13 minutes remaining the game, the Louisville defense played conservatively, which allowed Tulane to boost their final offensive numbers.

"I was real proud of our kids," said U of L defensive coordinator Mike Gillhamer. "I wish we could have finished strong…we made some mistakes at the end that were just silly, but I was real proud of their effort."

Cardinal defense (ITV)
While through seven games, it has appeared to have lived by the ‘bend, but don't break philosophy,' U of L defensive coordinator Mike Gillhamer likes the progress that he has seen, but realizes that there is still plenty of room for improvement.

"They still have a lot to prove and that's the approach that we've taken with them," continued Gillhamer. "We haven't done anything yet and it's not over. We have to keep going forward."

One of the pleasant surprises of the 2003 season has been the impressive play of what was a youth-filled and mostly inexperienced secondary.

"They've done well," Gillhamer said of his secondary. "The plays that we've gave up at the end of games are plays were we've lost our concentration and lost our focus. They still have a ways to go, but they are playing together as a unit and we're getting some good pressure [on the quarterback] and that always helps the secondary."

Marcus Jones (ITV)
One of the lineman that is largely responsible for the pressure that is being applied to the opposing quarterbacks is junior defensive end Marcus Jones. Through seven games, Jones leads the team in sacks with six and is tied with Montavious Stanley for the team lead in tackles for a loss with seven.

"Marcus has done real well," said Gillhamer. "He's real active off the corner and he plays fast. He has a great attitude. He has probably been our most consistent defensive lineman so far."

The improved play of first year starting linebacker Robert ‘Hammer' McCune has also helped the Cardinal defense perform at a higher level than most outsiders anticipated. McCune, who has already garnered a Conference USA Defensive Player of the Week honor, currently leads the team with 87 tackles, which is nearly double Brent Johnson's 47 stops, who ranks second.

'The Hammer' (ITV)
"He's done a real good job, but he's still learning the game a little bit," Gillhamer said of McCune. "His attitude is what keeps him going. He loves the game and just plays hard."

However, possibly the main reason, which often goes unnoticed, is the relationship built between head coach Bobby Petrino and Gillhamer.

"Bobby let's me run the defense, but he'll come over and suggest some things and point out a few things are or aren't happening," explained Gillhamer. "He's running the offense and I get to run the defense, but he's a great asset during the week. We talk and I go over what I want to do this week and he has ideas that he'll share. He lets me coach, but he's also there as a great source to run stuff off of and he's not shy about sharing his opinion about things."

After facing a Tulane team that thinks pass first, run second, the Cardinal defense is preparing this week for an East Carolina team that usually thinks run first.

"I expect them to try and run the ball down our throat and we have stop it," said Gillhamer of the Pirates. "They do an excellent job with the play action and they'll spread you out. The number one thing though is that we need to stop their run. Their line is very, very good and they are all over 300-pounds. They have some weapons and you wonder, when you watch them on film, why they are 1-6."

Having shown their ability to stop opponents when needed, as well as having to scrimmage against the differing running styles of Eric Shelton and Lionel Gates, there is little doubt that the Cardinal defense will once again rise to the challenge and help Louisville improve it's record to 7-1 and a possible Top 25 ranking.

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