To cap off our defensive previews for the 2021 Louisville football team, we’ll be taking a look at the linebacker position. We have recently covered the offensive and defensive lines, as well as the defensive backs (courtesy of our own Dalton Pence).
Louisville’s defense made substantial improvements in 2020. The Cardinals finished 39th in the FBS in total defense (369.1 yards per game), and 17th in passing defense (189.2 YPG; #1 in ACC).
However, those stats are somewhat offset by the fact that Louisville was 80th in rushing defense (179.9 YPG), though that was also an improvement from 2019.
|Year||Scoring Defense||Passing YPG||Rushing YPG||Total YPG|
|2019||33.4 (110th)||234.2 (79th)||205.8 (112th)||439.9 (102nd)|
|2020||26.6 (49th)||189.2 (17th)||179.9 (80th)||369.1 (39th)|
They also improved in yards per play, allowing 5.78 yards per play (T-72nd in FBS) and lowering the average by .55 from 2019. However, like their rushing defense totals, that number was also in the bottom half of the FBS. Louisville was also tied for 13th in the ACC (out of 15 schools) in tackles for loss per game (5.64), which was a slight drop from 2019’s 6.08 per game.
Louisville enters 2021 needing to replace Rodjay Burns and Dorian Etheridge as starters, both whom were integral parts of the defense from last season. Robert Hicks and Thurman Geathers also transferred in the offseason to UT-Martin and Arkansas State, respectively.
Listed Starters: C.J. Avery (inside), Monty Montgomery (inside), Yasir Abdullah (outside), Marvin Dallas (CARD)
The starting lineup should be the anchor of the Louisville defense once again this season. Even with the losses of Burns and Etheridge, they still have a lot of experience and talent in this group.
The Cardinals got a huge boost in the offseason when C.J. Avery announced that he would be returning for his fifth season at Louisville, giving them a veteran with 30 career starts. Avery has led the team in tackles in each of the last two seasons, and can make plays against both the run and pass (the latter especially, as a former safety). He should be an all-conference candidate this season if he leads the team in tackles again, and can improve in overall playmaking.
Louisville, in general, struggled with creating turnovers last year; they only had five interceptions (Avery had one himself), and only 12 turnovers created. This especially became a problem when Louisville itself struggled with ball security all season. For Louisville’s defense to take the next step, they will need somebody (likely multiple people) to step up and create those turnovers or TFLs. That may start with Avery, and as a fifth-year player, he should be able to lead the way.
Monty Montgomery led the team in sacks in 2019 and 2020 as a reserve, but is finally elevated to a full-time starting role after Etheridge’s departure. Montgomery can also play the run really well, but as a middle linebacker and starter, he’ll be asked to handle more pass coverage responsibilities. He has the athleticism to be able to handle it, it’s just a matter of putting it together on the field.
Yasir Abdullah also returns as a starter at outside linebacker, having made 15 career starts up to this point. Abdullah has been gradually getting better in both run support and pass coverage, and could be in line for a true breakout season in 2021. He and Montgomery both play with a high level of intensity in their game, which should galvanize the team in crucial moments this season. With Abdullah and Montgomery’s ability to shed blockers and overall quickness, Louisville should be able to improve its ability to make plays behind the line of scrimmage.
Avery, Abdullah, and Montgomery are all assumed to be starters heading into 2021. But what about the CARD position that Rodjay Burns had thrived in the last two seasons? That will likely go to Marvin Dallas, Jr., who was the #1 JUCO outside linebacker (per 247Sports) when he committed to Louisville. Dallas played in five games last season, primarily on special teams, and should thrive in that position. He has excellent speed and can make a lot of plays from the weak side, which Louisville has had a hard time with in the last few seasons.
Key Reserves: Nick Okeke, Jack Fagot, K.J. Cloyd, Dorian Jones
Louisville has one key substitute in Nick Okeke, who has the ability to sub in at outside or inside linebacker for Louisville. Okeke is a smart player that, like Abdullah and Montgomery, can shed blockers and make plays behind the line of scrimmage. If he can improve his ability in pass coverage over the course of 2021, he could be able to start full-time in 2022 without much drop off for Louisville once Avery departs.
Jack Fagot moves over from safety to occupy the backup spot at CARD behind Marvin Dallas, Jr., though I could see him moving back to safety if Louisville needs a veteran there. Fagot has been fine when he’s stepped in as a substitute at safety, and proven to make plays when asked to come in. He could primarily be used as a pass-coverage substitute because of his safety experience.
Other than Okeke and Fagot, Louisville doesn’t have a lot of returning experience at linebacker. Dorian Jones and K.J. Cloyd are listed as the backups behind Avery and Montgomery, right now I’d say Cloyd has the inside track to start sooner. Cloyd has great game speed and, like Dallas, can make plays from the weak side as a result of it. He shoots gaps in an instant and has solid instincts as far as run support goes. I think Cloyd has the athleticism to be to be a solid pass coverage linebacker as well, and has the size to play either outside or inside linebacker. He definitely fits the mold for Bryan Brown’s defense; a lean, fast linebacker that attacks gaps and has the athleticism to handle pass coverage duties.
Dorian Jones played sporadically in 2020 as a special teams contributor, but will likely backup Avery / Montgomery at inside linebacker. He’s a good downhill linebacker that can play the run really well and be used as a blitzer; I could definitely see him being used more often in heavy sets or goal line situations this season, but he’ll likely compete for a starting job at middle linebacker in 2022 with Cloyd and possibly Okeke.