In the forgetful 2018 college football season, the Louisville Cardinals defense was one of the worst in the sports’ history. Since the new coaching staff led by Scott Satterfield took over at the conclusion of that season, the Cardinal defense has improved immensely. After two years in the new era, Louisville ended the 2020 campaign with the 39th-best defense (369.1 yards per game), and ranked 17th in the nation in opposing passing yards per contest (189.2). For Co-Defensive Coordinator/Outside Linebackers Coach Cort Dennison, the vast improvements are a product of a handful of reasons.
From 2015-18, the Louisville program had three different defensive coordinators come and go before Bryan Brown and company took over. “When I was here back in 2014-17 with Coach (Todd) Grantham, the reason the defense had so much success was because we had the same system every year,” Dennison recalled. The up-and-coming coach returned to the Cardinal program after spending a year at Oregon as the outside linebackers coach. The continuity in instruction since the new regime came in after the 2018 season has done wonders for the defense’s development just like it did in Dennison’s first tenure at Louisville.
“I think the number one factor in our tremendous growth is continuity,” he explained. “In order to have sustained success, you need to have continuity and consistency. These players never had the same coordinator for longer than one year. So, how can you get good at something when the moment you get comfortable with your technique and position, it changes? These kids have been able to learn, grow, and develop in the same system and they become comfortable with what they’re doing. That has allowed them to play fast and gain confidence. When you look at some of the top defenses in the country, they’re able to communicate and play at high levels because they’ve played in that same system for a long period of time.”
After going 8-5 and winning the Music City Bowl in 2019, the expectations for the Cardinals were sky-high in 2020. The coronavirus, injuries, and turnovers significantly hindered the season, however, as Louisville finished with a 4-7 record. Despite the setback in wins, the team’s defense took another step forward.
“ I think our guys did a great job,” Dennison explained. “This past year brought forth circumstances that nobody has ever seen before and alot of it was out of our control. I thought the way they handled adversity and adjusted to things on the fly was outstanding.”
The more things change, the more they stay the same in a sense, and Dennison acknowledged that despite the uncontrollable factors, the players’ drive never faltered.
“The cool thing about this growth and development is that we know that there are so many areas that we can continue to improve on,” Dennison said. “Statistically, we got better in every category. The goals we set are attainable, they’re right out there for us to go get; it’s little things like a missed tackle or a lack of communication. I know that the kids are excited to build on the foundation and hungry to improve.”
In terms of the defensive identity, Brown’s philosophy is built on speed and versatility. “Versatility is key and what the game of college football is becoming,” Dennison added. “There are so many offenses now that try to spread you out with dynamic playmakers; so, in order to match those offenses, you have to play with speed and versatility. You want players with position flexibility and the ability to adapt to what opposing offenses are doing. Teams are getting into 11 personnel and utilizing the whole football field, while scoring 40-50 points a game.”
The Cardinal defense as a whole is very fluid in terms of style of plays, and prides itself in its “multiple” packages. Having a unit that is able to alter its style based upon its opponent is extremely valuable in football today. “Coach Brown is not set in his ways,” Dennison said. “The best coordinators adapt to their players and not the other way around. What we do schematically will change every week depending on who we play; versatility is the name of the game.”
Brown may be the true defensive coordinator, but the defensive staff as a whole works together to maximize instruction on a weekly basis. “Coach Brown calls everything on gameday and everything goes through him,” Dennison said. “Throughout the week, our defensive staff does a great job of splitting our roles to come up with the best gameplan possible. I will handle things with the run game along with Coaches (Derek) Nicholson and (Mark) Ivey, while Coach Sha’Don Brown handles the passing game and redzone.”
Dennison recognizes Brown’s ability to listen to his colleagues and adapt as a reason why he’s fun to work with. The positive environment in the defensive coaching room creates effective opportunities for better results on the field.
“On gameday, the coaching staff is all communicating what we are seeing,” he said. “Brown is not deadset like some coordinators are in the profession in which things are going to get done his way and that his way is the only way. He doesn’t have an ego and welcomes all of our opinions on whatever type of scenario is going on throughout the game. I think that’s one of the best things about him and why he’s been so successful; he will take advice from others and won’t get caught up doing things a certain way.”
Since taking over in 2018, the coaching staff has tried to drive home the idea of “culture” within the program. For Dennison, it’s the most important aspect of success.
“Culture is the lifeblood of a program,” he explained. “It’s the standard, but it’s always changing; culture either gets better or worse. It’s something that you have to constantly be aware of and work on in order to have sustained success. When we (new coaching staff) got here, the one thing that was evident was that there wasn’t a set culture.”
For a good amount of fans, the word is very vague and has a broad connotation. However, one key ingredient of the formula must be present for the culture to be effective. “The best cultures that I have ever been around are led by the players,” Dennison said. “They realize that culture never sleeps and has to be improved on a daily basis both on and off the field. It can take years to build, but can be lost in one day, so consistency is needed.. We as the coaches can lay the foundation of what we want in terms of culture, but in order for it to truly come about, it has to be led by the players.”
The staff has prided themselves in creating not only good relationships with their players, but with each other as well. “Brian (Brown) and I have an outstanding relationship,” Dennison said. “I think our whole dynamic as a defensive staff is the most impressive that I’ve ever been around. The camaraderie we have on a daily basis translates well to gameday and the success we have communication-wise. It really makes our staff so fun to be around because we have such positive and welcoming relationships with one another.”
The emphasis on relationships begins at the top with Satterfield; the environment that he has created is one of love, balance, and hard-work.
“One of the best things about Coach Satterfield is how consistent he is,” Dennison explained. “He’s a good person that values family and people just as much as he does football. I think he balances that so well to where you have a great family life along with a solid dynamic in the workplace among the staff. It’s really hard to come by coaches these days that get the big picture, but Satterfield does. He truly cares about the well-being of his colleagues and I think the world of him; I know he’s committed to us, the program, and the kids. I can speak for the rest of the coaching staff when I say that we love being here and that we want to be here.”
Despite some staff turnover this offseason, the goal remains the same for Louisville: get better each and every day. Many factors contribute to the Cardinal’s defensive improvements, but all are the same in the name of hard-work and continuity.