Last Season: Louisville’s defense was maligned with many issues last season, ranging from injuries and issues in pass coverage to an inability to get a push or make stops in the front seven.
Fortunately, though, there was some good with the linebackers unit. True freshman Dorian Etheridge led the team with 83 combined tackles in 2017, while seniors Stacy Thomas (69) and Trevon Young (62) also finished in the top five for Louisville. Jonathan Greenard finished with a team-high seven sacks and 15.5 tackles for loss.
Projected starters: C.J. Avery, Dorian Etheridge, P.J. Blue
Assuming that new defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder will run the 4-3 as his “base” defense (VanGorder typically has run multiple sets such as a 4-3 or 3-4), then edge rushers like Jonathan Greenard and Boosie Whitlow would move down to the defensive line. That is also what I am basing these projected lineups on.
At outside linebacker, Louisville will likely start C.J. Avery and P.J. Blue. Avery was a true freshmen that played in all 13 games for the Cardinals last season, usually playing at safety. He’s shown an ability to play both inside the box and in coverage really well, which is why Avery will likely spend most of his time as a “STAR” (linebacker-safety hybrid) in VanGorder’s defense. It’s a role similar to what Josh Harvey-Clemons had when Todd Grantham was at Louisville, where Avery can roam the field and be able to blitz, play man coverage or deep zone.
Like Avery, P.J. Blue is also a safety converted to linebacker in VanGorder’s system. Blue hasn’t played a lot in his college career due to injuries, but has a skill set similar to Avery’s. Due to his and Avery’s size (Blue at 6’3″ and 217 pounds, Avery at 5’11” and 213 pounds), it’s likely to suggest that VanGorder wants a lot of speed at the position, coveting players that have a lot of versatility. With Avery and Etheridge as the only linebackers returning with experience, this spot will likely see a rotation between Blue, Robert Hicks and others to find a quality third starter.
One spot that is locked, however, is at middle linebacker, where sophomore Dorian Etheridge returns. Etheridge has bulked up to 233 pounds this season, making him one of Louisville’s biggest players at the position. Like Avery, Etheridge played in all 13 games last season as a true freshman, leading the team in tackles. He was tremendous last year in run support, but will need to improve on pass coverage to become a more complete player.
Key Reserves: Robert Hicks (Fr.), Quen Head (So.)
Robert Hicks comes to Louisville as a highly touted four-star linebacker out of Miami, Fl. Hicks brings massive size to the position at 6’1″ and 243 lbs., and is likely the odds-on favorite to have the most contribution among Louisville’s 2018 freshmen class. Hicks is a great run stopper, and with his impressive size, could see some reps at outside linebacker or middle linebacker in a 3-4 set. He showed an ability to shed blocks and make plays in the backfield, something that Louisville lacked in their front seven for most of 2017. It wouldn’t be surprising to see Hicks start at some point.
Quen Head received praise from head coach Bobby Petrino during Louisville’s media day Saturday for his effort on special teams, so don’t be surprised if he also sees reps at linebacker at some point. Players like freshman Yasir Abdullah and Nick Okeke could work their way into the rotation, as this is a wide open position battle.
Outlook: Like most of the defense this season, Louisville’s linebacker corps is young. The Cardinals do not have a senior linebacker on their 2018 roster, and unless some players like Greenard declare for the draft, nearly everyone should be back for 2019.
Dorian Etheridge figures to be one of, if not the best player on Louisville’s defense this season. He’s shown high football IQ on his tape and can play the run really well. They also have athletes like C.J. Avery and Robert Hicks that will add some much needed versatility with the linebacker group.
Overall, this group’s production will largely depend on how the defensive line performs. Louisville had a lot of issues last year getting pushes against opposing offensive lines, resulting in teams like Boston College and Clemson having their way with Louisville on the ground. The linebackers will need to be better at shooting gaps and getting open-field tackles in space, especially since they will be facing quality running backs like Damien Harris, A.J. Dillon, Cam Akers and Benny Snell. Pass coverage should also be a focal point this season, but might be okay considering Avery and Blue’s experience at safety.
But if Louisville can get quality production out of their interior linemen and get some disruption going, that will free up opportunities for the linebackers to have a much better season.