Louisville finished 102nd in the FBS in total defense, averaging approximately 440 yards allowed per game (their 6.33 yards per play allowed was tied for 110th). Those categories were also near the bottom of the ACC, ranking 12th and T-13th in the conference, respectively.
Louisville’s rushing defense will also be looking to make substantial improvements, after finishing 112th in the FBS in that category (205.8 yards per game). Louisville’s opponents also averaged 5.37 yards per carry against the Cardinals, ranking them 120th in the FBS.
Individually, Louisville’s linebackers led almost every team category. Three of Louisville’s top four tacklers were starting linebackers (C.J. Avery, Rodjay Burns, and Dorian Etheridge with 93, 83, and 70 combined tackles, respectively). Burns (11) and Etheridge (eight) also led the team in tackles for loss, with reserve Boosie Whitlow ranking third in the category (6.5). Reserve linebacker Monty Montgomery led the team with five sacks and three forced fumbles in 2019.
Louisville’s 2020 team will only have to replace reserves, with T.J. Holl, Boosie Whitlow, Quen Head and Damien Smith leaving.
Listed Starters: Dorian Etheridge, C.J. Avery, Rodjay Burns, Yasir Abdullah
The linebacker group will be the most experienced of Louisville’s defensive units by a wide margin. Dorian Etheridge will enter 2020 as a four-year starter for the program, while C.J. Avery and Rodjay Burns begin their third (and possibly final) season as full-time starters for Louisville.
Etheridge emerged as a Freshman All-American in 2017, totaling 83 combined tackles (three for loss) with two PBUs. He has since gone on to record 35 career starts, with 208 tackles (15 for loss) and 11 PBUs in his stat line. His football IQ and experience should make him one of the most reliable players on Louisville’s defense. With a returning defensive coordinator for the first time in his career, he has the potential to blossom in Bryan Brown’s system. Etheridge improved in coverage situations with five PBUs and an interception last year, but another year to refine that and his run stopping could make him an interesting late-round draft prospect in 2021.
C.J. Avery and Rodjay Burns are also among the top veterans in Louisville’s defense, each recording over 20 starts in their college careers. Both have very similar player molds; they were former defensive backs coming out of high school, then transitioned to linebacker in college. This gives Louisville two linebackers that can play in coverage well, and in both men’s case, they can also become the biggest playmakers in run stopping. Avery led the team last season with 93 tackles, while Burns led Louisville in tackles for loss (11). Louisville will need a big year from these two once again to improve the defense.
Yasir Abdullah is one of my personal favorite players on the Louisville defense. He has a high motor and can run from sideline to sideline without much issue. Abdullah’s addition to the starting lineup should bolster a Louisville front seven that is aiming to get out of its recent slump with stopping quality running teams.
Key Reserves: Monty Montgomery, Robert Hicks, Nick Okeke, Marvin Dallas
If it weren’t for Louisville having four quality linebackers in its starting lineup, Monty Montgomery would be a shoe-in to start at outside linebacker. Despite his reserve status though, Montgomery’s ability as a pass rusher and getting into backfields will give him plenty of reps this fall. It wouldn’t surprise me if he does make a start in 2020, but you’ll likely see him used in blitz packages or on passing downs where Louisville really wants to dial up the pressure.
After entering the transfer portal before the season, Robert Hicks decided to return to the program and continue playing at linebacker for the Cards. Hicks has played sporadically in his first two seasons, and will likely continue to do so as long as Etheridge and Avery start. His overall strength and tackling ability will make him an option for Louisville in possible goal line or short-yardage packages this year. But in 2021, I think Hicks could potentially be one of the breakout players.
Both Hicks and Nick Okeke have impressive size for the position; Hicks stands at 6’1″ and 235 lbs., with Okeke at 6’3″ and 240 lbs. Okeke can play either inside or outside, which will allow him to rotate and spell guys like Avery and Abdullah when they need a rest. Situationally, Okeke is the best at run stopping right now, but if he can develop pass rush techniques, he could be used more often in passing downs and give Louisville a stand-up rusher in 3-4 looks.
The most intriguing spot that Louisville fans should watch on defense in 2021 will be the CARD position. Bryan Brown put Rodjay Burns in this spot as a LB/S hybrid that NFL teams love to try and get, and with his departure after this season, Marvin Dallas will be a name to watch there. Dallas was the #1 JUCO outside linebacker in 2019, and has stout athleticism with a 4.6 40-time and experience in track & field.