We continue our Louisville football breakdown by looking at the secondary for the 2019 team. The Cardinals return a majority of players who saw game time last season, but will be looking to find some players to cement permanent starting roles for the short-term.
Much like the rest of the defense last year, Louisville’s secondary had a number of issues across the board that you can point to. The Cardinals finished 40th last year in passing yards per game (206.3), which comes off on the surface as a respectable number. But that number is misled by the fact that teams were able to run the ball on autopilot against Louisville’s defense.
If you add some other key numbers, it paints how bad Louisville’s pass coverage was. U of L’s opponents completed 64.5% of its passes (117th in FBS), averaged 8.5 yards per attempt (T-114th in FBS), and their opponents had a 160.48 passer rating (120th in FBS). By comparison to its Power Five peers, Louisville allowed the sixth highest completion percentage, third highest yards per attempt average, and second highest passer rating among P5 schools.
Those numbers also carried historical significance for U of L. The team had six interceptions for the entire 2018 season, the lowest single-season total for the Cardinals since 1986. The 64.5% completion percentage was the second-highest for U of L since passing stats were charted in 1948.
With having six interceptions on the year, no one was able to standout in that category. Linebacker C.J. Avery led the Cardinals with two.
Who Departs: London Iakopo, Dee Smith
Potential Starters: CB Anthony Johnson (R-So.); CB Marlon Character (Jr.), S Russ Yeast (Jr.), S Khane Pass (R-Sr.)
While Rodjay Burns appears to be heading towards a starting spot at linebacker, the secondary should still see 2-3 returning starters from last year. Anthony Johnson is almost assuredly going to be the CB1, heading into the season opener. He emerged as the top cornerback option late in the year, when the defense was still trying to find some continuity in November. Johnson made a lot of solid plays against Syracuse and N.C. State that reinforced his spot as the top man coverage cornerback on the roster.
CB2, though, will likely be a battle between Marlon Character and Cornelius Sturghill. Sturghill has played throughout most of the last two years at both ends, and still remains one of the fastest players on the roster. Character came in with a lot of promise as a top JUCO prospect signing with the Cardinals, and will have an expanded role in the rotation this year. What will most likely happen is that Character starts at CB2, with the speedy Sturghill emerging as the top option at nickel cornerback.
The safety spot will undoubtedly have the strongest depth in the secondary. After flirting with a transfer from Louisville, Russ Yeast decided to come back for his junior season. And Yeast will likely be one of the biggest benefactors of the coaching change, as he has become a starting strong safety on the Louisville roster. A starting safety spot for Yeast would allow him to utilize his athleticism better, giving him the freedom to come down for run support and also give him a chance to cover in zone (which, to me, was always his biggest strength).
Manning the other safety spot is Khane Pass, who returns as one of few three-year starters in the program. His return gives Louisville a veteran in the backfield.
Key Reserves: CB Cornelius Sturghill (Grad.); DB Isaiah Hayes (Jr. transfer); S TreSean Smith (Jr.); CB P.J. Mbanasor (R-Sr.)
The safety position does have two key reserves that will solidify a decent two-deep in the back end. Isaiah Hayes comes over as a late transfer add-on from Arizona. It wouldn’t surprise me if Hayes eventually emerges as a starter and takes over Khane Pass’s spot, or Russ Yeast at strong safety for that matter. If Hayes were to start at safety, that could always give Russ Yeast a chance to get reps as the nickel cornerback, which I believe Yeast could thrive at.
TreSean Smith was a guy that I was really high on last year, and in spite of the albatross 2018 season, I still believe he has a lot of potential in him. But due to the return of Russ Yeast, and the add-on of late transfers like Isaiah Hayes, I’m not exactly sure where Smith falls in the depth chart. He might have to wait one more season before finally becoming a starter in 2020, but regardless, I feel he is the most underrated player on Louisville’s roster.
P.J. Mbanasor was an early season starter in 2018, after transferring to Louisville by way of Oklahoma. With few starting spots truly secured until the season opener arrives, Mbanasor could always play his way back into the starting lineup. But at the very least, he will provide some key depth at a position that could possibly be the strongest in Louisville’s defense.
JK’s Takeaway: Heading into the season, I believe the secondary could be the strongest group on Louisville’s defense. They don’t have high upside in terms of their talent level, but should be a deep group capable of challenging some of the mid-to-bottom tier receivers in the ACC.
While Louisville did not have a single all-conference nominee, I think Anthony Johnson will be one of the top players on Louisville’s roster to achieve that by the end of the season. He might not be in the First or Second Team, but with a better overall season from the secondary, he could get a few votes as a Third Team player or Honorable Mention.
The key in the secondary’s improvement for 2019 will be if they can get more out of their depth. If the CB2 position can become even remotely reliable in pass coverage, then the Cardinals should be able to pull out one or two more wins that they shouldn’t. The safety position also needs to be the strength of the team as I expect them to, keeping teams from hitting bombs down the field and providing solid run support.