We are now wrapped up with our breakdown of the Louisville offense, so it’s time to take a look at the Louisville defense in the month of August. First up, the defensive line.
The Louisville pass rush was among the best in FBS last season, racking up an astounding 50 sacks in 2022. This marked the first season since 2015 that the Cardinals ranked within the top ten in FBS in sacks.
And Louisville’s pass rush was a very deep group last season. Linebacker Yasir Abdullah and defensive end YaYa Diaby led the team with a combined 19.5 sacks (9.5 and 9.0, respectively), with linebacker Monty Montgomery and defensive end Ashton Gillotte adding six sacks apiece. Diaby also had 14 tackles for loss in 2022, and earned Third-Team All-ACC honors with his efforts. Gillotte was an Honorable Mention for All-ACC honors as well.
On the defensive line, YaYa Diaby was selected in the third round of the 2023 NFL Draft by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Mark Hagen takes over as co-defensive coordinator, as well as defensive line coach, for Louisville in 2023.
Projected Starters: Ashton Gillotte, Dezmond Tell, Jermayne Lole, Stephen Herron
With new co-defensive coordinator Mark Hagen taking over, Louisville will be transitioning to a 4-2-5 base on defense. One of the more prominent additions to the lineup will be the “LEO” spot, which acts as more of a hybrid DE/OLB position that players like Yasir Abdullah thrived under with former defensive coordinator Bryan Brown.
One of Jeff Brohm’s first additions from the portal was Stanford transfer Stephen Herron, who spent the last four seasons with the Cardinal and played at Trinity High School in Louisville. Herron led Stanford in sacks in each of the last two seasons, logging 8.5 sacks and two forced fumbles in that span. The LEO position is a great fit for Herron’s athleticism, allowing him to play as a stand-up edge rusher.
Having Herron on one side gives Louisville a solid player to complement Ashton Gillotte, who will be starting opposite him. Gillotte has impressed from day one with his motor and work ethic, and he’s developed into a fine pass rusher with his skill set. Gillotte could be due for an all-conference caliber season, especially now in a 4-2-5 that should see him as a 5-tech.
Louisville won’t be short on options with their interior linemen, as well. Dezmond Tell is the most likely starter at defensive tackle, and he’s looking to build off momentum that he created in the second half of the 2022 season. Tell had 13 tackles, three TFLs, and 1.5 sacks in the final seven games of the season, including a solid performance in the Fenway Bowl against Cincinnati (five tackles, one sack, one forced fumble).
For the final starting spot inside, it’s very tough to pin down a surefire starter there. Assuming that he is 100% healthy, Jermayne Lole should be the projected starter here. Lole had a strong 2020 season at Arizona State, but has battled through injuries the last two seasons (including a season-ending injury after the season opener against Syracuse in 2022). Lole is a very agile interior lineman with a solid array of moves, expect him to have the most impact as a 1-tech or 3-tech in the 4-2-5 scheme.
Key Reserves: Mason Reiger, Victoine Brown, Popeye Williams, Jeff Clark, Jared Dawson, Tawfiq Thomas, Ramon Puryear
Louisville has a lot of depth that should see the field in some capacity this season. With the 4-2-5 base defense, more defensive linemen should have opportunities to see the field in 2023.
At the edge spots, Louisville should feel very good about their depth at both LEO and defensive end. Mason Reiger is one of the most underrated players on this team, and he should be able to play at both spots (expect him to spell Gillotte at defensive end more often, though). Reiger had seven tackles for loss and two forced fumbles in 2022, and he plays with a high motor like Gillotte. Victoine Brown also had a really solid spring and should be a prominent reserve this season.
Popeye Williams should also see the field more in 2023, particularly as a LEO to spell Herron. Williams was one of the top prospects in Louisville’s 2022 recruiting class, and gradually earned playing time in the second half of last season. I made note in last year’s position breakdown that he’d likely have the most impact as an EDGE (3-4 OLB or 4-3 DE), that hasn’t changed for me heading into 2023.
Louisville got a solid late addition in the transfer portal with Georgia State defensive lineman Jeff Clark coming to U of L. Clark led GSU last season with 9.5 tackles for loss, and tied for second on the team with 4.5 sacks. He should slide in as a rotational player at end or tackle.
If Lole doesn’t have a starting spot inside, Jared Dawson likely has it on week one. He was a solid rotational piece for the Cardinals last season at nose tackle (16 tackles, 3.0 TFLs, 2.5 sacks, FF), and in the 4-2-5 should pair very well with Dezmond Tell inside. He’s proven to be a well-rounded interior player as both a run-stopper and pass rusher, and it honestly would not surprise me if he not only starts week one, but also becomes one of the best players on the team in 2023.
After Tell, Dawson, and Lole, Louisville has some solid depth. Tawfiq Thomas and Ramon Puryear were both rotational players along the defensive line last season, both should see bigger roles in the 4-2-5. Thomas likely slides in as a future starter at defensive tackle.