Along with an improved pass rush, the Louisville defense was arguably better in pass coverage. While they dropped from 40th in passing yards per game to 79th from 2018 to 2019, they lowered their opponent’s average passer rating (160.5 to 144.5), completion percentage (64.5 to 60), and yards per attempt (8.5 to 7.5) year to year. Louisville also upped their interception total (6 to 7) over the prior season.
Louisville remained one of the better teams in the FBS in terms of limiting big plays through the air. The Cardinals allowed 60 passes of 15+ yards and 26 passes of 25+ yards, good for 36th and 46th in the FBS, respectively. They were also excellent in some third down situations, holding opponents to under 50% completion rate on third-and-short situations (1-3), as well as third downs on 7-to-9 yards.
They also had some success through the second half of the season, not allowing any opponent to go over 255 passing yards in a game. However, eight of Louisville’s 13 opponents averaged over 7.5 yards per attempt against the Cardinals, and four of the last seven completed over 65% of their passes.
In 2020, Louisville’s secondary will have to replace longtime starting safety Khane Pass, as well as cornerbacks P.J. Mbanasor and Cornelius Sturghill.
Listed Starters: Chandler Jones, Anthony Johnson (cornerbacks); Marlon Character (nickel); Russ Yeast, Isaiah Hayes (safeties)
Defensive coordinator Bryan Brown came with Scott Satterfield when the latter was hired on as Louisville’s head coach in late 2018. While Satterfield had built a sterling reputation as one of the top young head coaches in the sport with an exciting offense, Brown was being touted as one of the top young assistants in the country at Appalachian State with him.
Brown’s secondary at Appalachian State was consistently among the best in the nation at takeaways, despite the fact the Mountaineers were transitioning from FCS to FBS. From 2014-2018, his units had no less than 12 total interceptions in a season; additionally, the Mountaineers tallied 85 INTs during that span, and from 2015-18, they were ranked no lower than 12th in the FBS in that category. The gigantic number of takeaways was also a huge reason why Appalachian State’s defenses were also among the best in the country during that span.
Getting Louisville to those elite ranks would have been a lofty goal last year, given where the Cardinals were coming from in 2018. But year two under Brown at Louisville with an experienced secondary could yield some promise for a group that needs to show it.
Louisville’s secondary will need a bigger year from Chandler Jones, who emerged as the undisputed CB1 after a strong end to the 2019 season. Jones was sixth on the team in tackles (50; 4.5 for loss), and led the Cardinals with ten pass breakups. He’s got stellar man coverage with a lot of room still to grow in Brown’s system, and should be the guy who leads the team in interceptions with a potential All-ACC bid.
CB2 should be a constant rotation between Anthony Johnson and Marlon Character. I think you’ll see Johnson more at CB2, with Character playing in the nickel or rotating to outside corner if Johnson / Jones need to rest. Johnson has made five starts in 24 games played, and led the team last season in forced fumbles (three). Character made four starts at cornerback last year, but can slide up to safety if Louisville has issues at the position.
Safety is the lone wildcard, if only because Louisville has to replace Khane Pass. Isaiah Hayes should slide in at free safety, after playing sporadically at both Arizona and Louisville. Hayes started his career early at Arizona under Rich Rodriguez, tallying 38 tackles with a sack in seven starts (11 games played) as a true freshman. Now free from injuries that have held him back at both stops, Hayes is eager to have a standout 2020 season. If he can be reliable in pass coverage, that would definitely help Louisville against some of the stronger passing teams on their schedule.
Russ Yeast also returns as the strong safety starter, and he really benefited from the position change after struggling at cornerback his freshman and sophomore years. Yeast is a great athlete with the range to play in deep zones or single high looks, but will be coming off a season-ending injury from last year. If he can return to form, Louisville gets a safety that was fifth on the team in tackles last year (61), and can play well enough in both run and pass coverage.
Key Reserves: Greedy Vance, Jamel Starks, Kei’Trei Clark, Jack Fagot, Lovie Jenkins
One freshman that could see the field in 2020 is Greedy Vance. He’s somewhat undersized at 5’10” and 155 lbs., but he checks all the boxes that you want in a man corner. I was really impressed with his ability to close the distance with receivers and make plays on the ball, especially with his length and verticality. I don’t know if he will be able to play a lot at outside cornerback, but his athleticism and raw talent as a man cover should make him an enticing option as a nickel and dime cornerback. At minimum, he should benefit from the four-game rule that allows players to play games and maintain a redshirt season.
Jamel Starks is another freshman to watch heading into 2020. Whereas Vance is a great cover corner, Starks really shines in run support and heavy hitting. He does have the versatility to play cornerback, running back and possibly as a returner, but I think his future right now lies at safety. Bulking up will really make him a physical presence when he is ready to step up into a starting role, once Yeast and Hayes graduate.
Whereas Vance and Starks are freshmen that could see early playing time, Kei’Trei Clark was a late addition that could vie for reps as a reserve defensive back. Clark transferred from Liberty University, where he started all 13 games last season and recorded 38 tackles, one sack, and six pass breakups. If he is granted a waiver to play immediately, Louisville would get some much needed depth at cornerback. Clark likely plays at CB2 or nickel, if he is able to.
As for safety, Louisville has a strong veteran presence with Jack Fagot coming back. Fagot earned a scholarship before the 2019 season and was rewarded with significant playing time. The Lexington Catholic product recorded 25 tackles, and his lone interception famously came against Clemson QB Trevor Lawrence. He’s a key reserve with experience that should be a leader on the defensive side of the ball.
Aside from Fagot, Hayes and Yeast, Louisville doesn’t have a lot of experience at the position. Freshman Lovie Jenkins could be expected to play early and often for the Cards, coming to U of L as a three-star DB that the staff flipped from Tennessee (also held offers from Notre Dame, Miami, and Kentucky among others). Jenkins should be a shoe-in to start at strong safety once Yeast graduates, as he has the ability to play in deep zones or help in run stopping. He’s also got incredible field vision on returns, which could open the door for him as a potential special teams ace.