In our last defensive breakdown of the 2023 Louisville football team, we will take a look at this year’s secondary group. Feel free to check out our previous breakdowns of the defensive line and the linebacker group earlier this month.
We highlighted in last week’s linebacker preview that Louisville’s defense was among the best in creating havoc last season. That also applied to their pass coverage, where the Cardinals racked up 15 interceptions in 2022 (T-15th in FBS). They also ranked 22nd in passing yards allowed per game (197 YPG) on 58.3% completion (T-41st) and 7.1 yards per attempt (58th).
Louisville had a really solid year from their main three cornerbacks in 2022. Kei’Trel Clark earned Third-Team All-ACC honors with 51 tackles, one sack, and two defensive touchdowns, finishing his Louisville career as a three-time All-ACC player. Jarvis Brownlee was one of the most productive players on the team, logging 67 tackles (third on the team), two interceptions, and a team-high 12 pass breakups. Quincy Riley led Louisville in interceptions (three) and also had 27 tackles with two pass breakups in 2022.
The Cardinals also got a huge boost from their safety spot last year, after struggling with allowing big plays in the prior two seasons. M.J. Griffin and Kenderick Duncan were among the top ten on the team in tackles (45 and 44, respectively), with Griffin also having two interceptions and a forced fumble on his statline. Josh Minkins was also very productive, with 55 tackles (fifth on the team), three PBUs, a forced fumble, and an interception.
Kei’Trel Clark was drafted in the sixth round by the Arizona Cardinals in the 2023 NFL Draft. Jeff Brohm brought in two notable names to oversee the secondary. Ron English returns to Louisville as a co-defensive coordinator (sharing duties with Mark Hagen) and secondary coach, while Steve Ellis has been brought in from East Carolina as the new cornerbacks coach.
Projected Starters: Jarvis Brownlee, Quincy Riley, Storm Duck (cornerbacks); Ben Perry (STAR); Josh Minkins & Devin Neal (safeties)
I’m admittedly bending my own projections a bit with listing three starting cornerbacks in a 4-2-5 scheme that has two actual starting spots. The reality is, though, that Louisville’s top three cornerbacks in Jarvis Brownlee, Quincy Riley, and Storm Duck are all starting caliber and could push for all-conference honors.
Let’s start with the returning players from Louisville. Jarvis Brownlee likely inherits one of the starting spots through the season, as he managed to start all 13 games for Louisville last season as a CB2. He caught a lot of flack early in 2022 for his struggles (most prominently against Florida State, his former team), but he did turn in a solid season afterwards. He was very productive for the Cardinals and proved he can be a solid man corner. He plays more physical than most corners you’ll see, and his solid frame at 6’0″, 190 lbs. definitely helps him do so.
As far as pure coverage skills, Quincy Riley had a really strong case for being the best in 2022. He did lead the team in interceptions (three) and was hardly beat on assignments, even as one of Louisville’s most important reserves last season. Riley has always proven to be an excellent playmaker on the ball dating back to his days at Middle Tennessee State, and that shouldn’t change in 2023. I’d expect Riley to mostly rotate at outside cornerback and possibly lineup at nickel in some sets, which would give Louisville three outstanding corners in obvious passing down situations.
With Brownlee and Riley returning for Louisville in 2023, the Cardinals were already looking to have one of the best cornerback units in the ACC. Adding Storm Duck to the fold after the spring game gives them serious consideration for the best group in the conference, maybe one of the best in the FBS. Duck arrives after spending four seasons at North Carolina and a brief stop at Penn State in the spring, and earned Second-Team All-ACC honors last season with the Tar Heels (46 tackles, nine PBUs, three INTs, FF). He’s perhaps Louisville’s best all-around player at the position, proving that he can excel in either man or zone and at 6’1″, 200 lbs., should be a reliable contributor against the run. Duck likely will be your CB1 all season and should contend for All-ACC honors once again.
Ben Perry is likely your starter at the STAR position this season, which is fitting given he was a starter at the very similar CARD spot in Bryan Brown’s defense. He’ll maintain his role as the hybrid LB/S, being asked to do a variety of things but should shine most as a run stopper. He has been showing improvement in pass coverage, but taking another leap there in 2023 would help Louisville become one of the best defenses in the ACC.
Louisville does return Josh Minkins as a starter at safety, but took a huge blow recently when MJ Griffin went down with a leg injury, potentially sidelining him for the season. This puts Baylor transfer Devin Neal into a potential starting role this season. Neal had a solid 2022 season with Baylor, posting 41 tackles, two interceptions, and a forced fumble. He’s proven to be a playmaker against the run and the pass, so this gives Louisville a well rounded safety to fill the void left behind by Griffin’s injury.
Circling back to Minkins, he likely projects as your starter at strong safety. Minkins was one of Louisville’s most productive players and did a solid job in pass coverage, often times shining in single high looks.
Key Reserves: Trey Franklin, Marquis Groves-Killebrew, Marcus Washington, Aaron Williams (cornerbacks); Antonio Watts (STAR / ROVER); D’Angelo Hutchinson and Cam’Ron Kelly (safeties)
Louisville has to be very happy with their cornerback depth this season. Not only do they have three starting caliber players, they’ve also got a nice combination of experience and raw talent to develop behind them.
Trey Franklin returns for another season to give Louisville more experience at cornerback. He likely fits in as a nickel back, where he’s shown the most promise in his Louisville career. He’s a decent coverage corner that has been able to make plays on the ball as well. Derrick Edwards is another reserve that could vie for playing time at either outside or inside cornerback.
Behind those two, Louisville has highly rated prospects to develop as future starters. Marcus Washington and Marquis Groves-Killebrew were both four-star recruits coming out of high school, both also high-end transfer acquisitions from Georgia and Texas A&M, respectively. Aaron Williams is another four-star recruit that Louisville managed to land in the 2023 recruiting class, but he’ll be coming off knee surgery after playing with a torn ACL in his senior season. Williams has the potential to be a star at Louisville; he’s a big cornerback (6’2″, 185 lbs.) that knows how to use his length and can make plays on the ball. He has the potential to be a well-rounded corner and with his size, could be a menace in the coming years for the Cardinals.
Louisville also has solid depth at the STAR position behind Perry. Antonio Watts had a really strong spring and should be in the two-deep, with the potential to become a starter here thanks to high school experience as a safety. He’s a physical player that should be able to contribute most against the run. Gilbert Friarson was another portal get for the Cardinals via Miami (FL), he scored a defensive touchdown last year as a reserve.
With Griffin’s injury, Louisville’s depth at safety will need to take huge strides to stabilize the defense and prevent the big plays. Once again, Louisville managed to fortify their depth in the portal with landing Cam’Ron Kelly from North Carolina. Kelly was a Third-Team All-ACC player at safety in 2021 and should see most of his time at strong safety.
D’Angelo Hutchinson likely will see significant playing time with Griffin’s injury, after spending most of last season as a special teams player. Hutchinson and Kelly are both huge players at safety (6’3″) and having players of that size at the position definitely helps with run stopping and contesting 50/50 balls.