For the next part of our position breakdowns we turn our heads to the linebackers. The linebackers could be a strong point for the defense this year not only because of how many players are returning, but who is returning.
Again, it’s no secret that the numbers the defense allowed last year were abysmal. 485 yards allowed per game and over 5 touchdowns allowed per game are numbers that we all wish could be erased from the record books. But in order to grow and get better, you have to realize where you started.
The encouraging aspect from 2018 to 2019 is the return of Louisville’s 2nd and 3rd tacklers from last year. As sophomores last year, CJ Avery and Dorian Etheridge had 56 and 55 total tackles, respectively. Also, Avery led the team in interceptions with 2 and Etheridge led the team in passes deflected with 4. Not bad to have guys playing in the middle of the field with the ability to defend the pass as well.
Still, the takeaway from last year going into this year is that the run defense has to be significantly improved, or it’ll be another long year. Avery and Etheridge have the tools and experience to take the defense up a few notches.
Key Departures: None
Potential Starters: Boosie Whitlow, CJ Avery, Dorian Etheridge, Rodjay Burns
Boosie Whitlow is a redshirt-Senior who began his career at South Carolina. He only appeared in 3 games last year, but Coach Satterfield will look to rely on him at the outside linebacker spot this season. CJ Avery will start at Will Linebacker and look to continue an already solid career with the Cards. He is a hard-hitting ball hawk with the ability to drop into coverage. Dorian Etheridge will start at Mike Linebacker. Etheridge is Avery’s classmate and despite only being juniors, they will both be looked at to lead the defense both with their play and their actions. Rodjay Burns is the newcomer to the group. Burns, an Ohio State transfer who is a hometown Louisville kid from Trinity High School, played his whole career at defensive back. When the depth chart was released, Burns was listed as the starting outside linebacker which was kind of surprising considering he returned punts last year (including 1 for a touchdown), so he is mostly known for his speed. However, Burns ranked 10th in tackles last season and will move positions to anchor the outside of the group.
Key Reserves: Gary McCrae, Nick Okeke, Robert Hicks
Gary McCrae came to Louisville from Last Chance U. He is a 6’4″ 240lb senior who has yet to really see the field in his career. He is listed second on the depth chart behind Boosie Whitlow, so McCrae should get some reps this year. What he does with them will be crucial to providing relief to the starters and not having a drop off with the reserves. I was surprised to see Okeke as a reserve on the depth chart. The redshirt-Sophomore finished 8th in tackles last season as redshirt-Freshman and saw action in 11 games. I still believe he will be a big contributor to the unit this year. Robert Hicks is another player I expect to have a big impact, even if he doesn’t start. As a freshman, Hicks finished 15th on the team in tackles and had 2 tackles for loss. He put up those numbers, while only appearing in 6 games. With a larger sample size, the leap from freshman to sophomore could be huge for him and for the defense.
With Avery and Etheridge headlining the unit, I feel a lot more at ease than others may feel. The numbers Louisville allowed against the run last year simply cannot happen again and I don’t believe they will. Although in losing efforts, Avery and Etheridge performed as well as anyone last year and were standouts. Add in a year of experience, a new and improved coaching staff, and some fresh excitement and Louisville could surprise a lot of people this year. Okeke and Hicks will play a large role in the resurgence of this group also. Louisville’s linebackers will be a strong point for the defense and possibly the entire team this year and they will set the tone for the rest of the Cardinals to follow.