Last Year: Keith Kelsey and Stacy Thomas led the team with 91 and 85 tackles, respectively. Thomas, along with Jonathan Greenard, also had an interception in the NC State win last year, as well as 7.5 tackles for loss last season. Thomas ended the season on a high-note, having double-digit tackles in the final two games.
The unit captained a defense that finished 21st in FBS in tackles for loss (94), and has finished in the top 25 in total defense every year since 2010. The Cardinals will look to replace Keith Kelsey as a starter, now gone to the NFL.
Projected Starters: Stacy Thomas (ILB), Dorian Etheridge (ILB), C.J. Avery (STAR)
Note that throughout this preview, it will exclude edge rushers such as James Hearns and Trevon Young (for more on them and their reserves, be sure to read Mitch’s preview on the defensive line).
Stacy Thomas is the lone returning middle linebacker, entering 2017 as one of Louisville’s defensive captains. The senior was ranked by Pro Football Focus as their top returning middle linebacker, a loud statement for a player who has flown under the radar throughout his career. His reliability in both run and pass coverage is a huge asset for Peter Sirmon’s defense, but he will have to show more production as a pass rusher for Louisville’s defense to take the next step. As of now, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see him be a mid-to-late round selection in the 2018 NFL Draft.
Thomas, along with former Cardinals Keith Kelsey, Preston Brown and James Burgess, have developed a solid linebacker pedigree in recent years. True freshman Dorian Etheridge looks to be the future for Louisville at the position. He flew under the radar in Louisville’s 2017 recruiting class, but has been one of the biggest surprises this summer. For a true freshman, his play recognition is excellent, and his high school tape showed him blowing plays up multiple times through his film study. It’s that reason why he’s been practicing with the first team for most of the summer, and now, not as surprising if he starts.
Going with two true freshmen as starters is a bold move, but the upside of both Etheridge and C.J. Avery might be too big to ignore. Avery will likely occupy the STAR role that Josh Harvey-Clemons had under Todd Grantham’s defense, where he’ll play in the box as a safety/linebacker hybrid or occasional nickel back. Avery was an Under Armour All-American, often playing either in the box as a run stopper or dropping into zone. His physical style adds an edge to a Louisville group that lacks size at the position, aside from Thomas.
Key Reserves: London Iakopo, Khane Pass, Isaac Stewart, Amonte Caban
Like Avery, Iakopo is a safety-turned-linebacker in Sirmon’s new system. The new defensive coordinator wants faster, smaller linebackers in his system, and Iakopo seems like an ideal fit for his new role. He played a big role on special teams last season, before a knee injury ended his 2016 campaign. Iakopo has a very similar skill set to Avery’s, and that makes him an ideal candidate as a “STAR” in Sirmon’s defense. It’s very possible that he ends up being a fan favorite this season with his ability to play with an edge.
Iakopo, or Khane Pass for that matter, can either play linebacker or start at the STAR position projected to go to Avery. Pass brings more experience than Iakopo or Avery, and it wouldn’t be a shock to see him start the first game next week against Purdue. With the move to linebacker, it gives the group another option as a coverage linebacker, and adds more speed to combat spread offenses like Clemson or North Carolina.
Isaac Stewart or Amonte Caban will be key reserves in 2017, and figure to be in line for a starting role once Thomas leaves this season. Stewart had significant reps as a reserve behind Thomas last season, while Caban mostly played on special teams.