Last Season: Louisville’s pass defense went from 14th in 2016 to 66th overall last season, allowing approximately 225 yards per game. The average was the worst ranking for the Cardinals since 2011, and the third lowest in their last ten seasons.
The Cardinals struggled a lot in the first half of 2017 due to a combination of injuries (mainly with star cornerback Jaire Alexander) and a lackluster scheme from former defensive coordinator Peter Sirmon. While Alexander was sidelined, the Cardinals allowed 290+ passing yards in four of their first six games, as well as 461 yards and five touchdowns to Wake Forest. They rebounded in their final four games with solid performances, allowing 147.25 yards per game and a 1:6 TD-INT ratio in that stretch.
Trumaine Washington led all Cardinals with four interceptions in 2017. Chucky Williams (three) and TreSean Smith (two) were the only other players with multiple interceptions in 2017.
Potential CB Starters: CB P.J. Mbanasor, CB Rodjay Burns, CB Russ Yeast
Along with the departing Sirmon, Louisville has to replace a bulk of their key contributors in the secondary. Alexander, Trumaine Washington, Chucky Williams, and Zykiesis Cannon are starters that the Cardinals will need to replace, as well as key reserve Ronald Walker.
New defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder will likely lean on two transfers to start at outside cornerback; Oklahoma transfer P.J. Mbanasor, and Ohio State transfer Rodjay Burns. Mbanasor made two starts for the Sooners in 2015, and was a consensus four-star recruit out of high school, ranking as high as 74th on ESPN’s recruiting rankings. Of the current crop in Louisville’s secondary, Mbanasor seems like the odds-on favorite to start at CB1 for the Cardinals.
Burns was a former Trinity High standout in Louisville, Ky., making his name as a two-way player for the Shamrocks. Burns last played in 2016 for the Buckeyes, notably scoring on an interception return in their season opener against Bowling Green.
Russ Yeast had some struggles as a freshman starter last season, but is now an experienced player that VanGorder can use. Yeast could see most of his time as a nickel back in the defense, but could be moved to outside corner if necessary for the Cardinals. The most important area for Yeast to grow from year one to year two will be his man coverage skills.
Potential Safety Starters: TreSean Smith, Dee Smith
At safety, however, Louisville returns a lot more experience than their cornerback counterparts. Sophomore TreSean Smith earned a lot of playing time last year, showing versatility as a safety that can play in single-high coverage or in the box. TreSean Smith is coming off a torn ACL in the TaxSlayer Bowl last December, but if he can return at 100 percent, he has tremendous upside as a free safety.
Joining him will likely be senior Dee Smith, who has spent the better part of two years as a key reserve. Smith had 53 tackles and an interception in 2017. Smith will also be one of the team captains in 2018, bringing valuable experience that the Cardinals secondary will need.
Key Reserves: CB Marlon Character, Jr. & safety Khane Pass
Marlon Character, Jr. is listed as a cornerback on Louisville’s roster, but made his name as one of the top JUCO safeties in the country. He has excellent instincts when it comes to closing on routes and finishing plays with physicality, always looking to break up completions. Character’s ability to play both corner and safety could put him as a key reserve at both spots. Where he would see the most reps, though, is uncertain. Character and TreSean Smith would be a tremendous duo at safety, but I’d say Louisville has a more pressing need at cornerback currently. If Character does end up playing safety, then the fourth cornerback spot will be a battle between freshmen Anthony Johnson and Chandler Jones.
Like Dee Smith, Khane Pass is a veteran that could see his way into the starting rotation, if TreSean Smith isn’t healthy in time for the opener against Alabama. He is solid in pass coverage, and has the potential to play as a nickel back as well.
Outlook: The 2018 secondary has a lot of questions due to replacing every starter, but has arguably the biggest upside of the entire defense. TreSean Smith could be the star of the group, if he can return healthy and continue to contribute at a high level like he did last year. The key for Louisville’s secondary is to get quality contributions from their depth. Smith, along with transfers Rodjay Burns and P.J. Mbanasor, will likely get their share of picks and stops. But their two deep will need to be better than they were last year, or the Cardinals could find themselves in shootouts once again.