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Previewing Alabama vs. Louisville: The Cardinal defense

They are green at many positions and have their third coordinator in three years…can Louisville really stop what is forecast to be the most explosive Tide offense of the modern era?

Murray State v Louisville
Jonathan Greenard is easily the most explosive defender returning for the Cardinals this season.
Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images

While little is known about any team or unit at the dawning of a new season, there are some relative certainties that precede Alabama’s opening match-up with Bobby Petrino’s Louisville Cardinals. One of those is that the Cards will field an offense loaded with playmakers that should continue to thrive even though former Heisman winner Lamar Jackson is now playing in the NFL.

Equally as certain, however, is the fact that the Card defense will endure another difficult year of struggles against opposing offenses, and the first step down that weary road will begin with the Crimson Tide. The Cardinals are replacing an awful lot of talent on a defensive unit that wasn’t that good (read: terrible) in 2017 in the first place. Such a turnover in personnel under that circumstance could be a blessing, or a curse. The front seven is largely green, with only two linebackers who contributed last season back in place for 2018. The secondary is likewise largely untested, which could be a lethal pressure point against an explosive Tide passing attack.

Alabama will certainly have one of the nation’s leading offenses this year, even with first-year Tide OC Mike Locksley taking the helm in Tuscaloosa. Bama’s offensive roster is loaded with explosive talent, led by the likes of 1,000-yard rusher Damien Harris and National Championship Game here Tua Tagovailoa at QB. Add in a stable of backs, a seasoned highly-touted offensive line, a trio of electric wide receivers, and a couple of tight ends who will give opponents trouble, and Alabama seems to have the potential for historic offensive numbers.

To make matters worse, Petrino shuffled through another coordinator in the past year, bringing oft-torched defensive journeyman Brian VanGorder on board to help stabilize the Cards’ defensive hemorrhage. That is an iffy prospect at best, as VanGorder has had mediocre runs at places like Georgia, Auburn, Notre Dame, and with the Atlanta Falcons of the NFL. He didn’t distinguish himself in any of those previous stops, and with a reduced defensive talent base, it’s not likely that Louisville will be the job that vaults him to elite status. That said, he is a definite upgrade from previous coordinator Peter Sirmon, so VanGorder will be charged with providing at least a modicum of improvement to the struggling Card D.

So, what does the Cardinal defense bring to the table? How will they choose to employ their meager arsenal against a deadly Tide offensive attack? Let’s take a closer look…

The Roster

Much like Alabama’s own defense, Louisville will be replacing an awful lot of solid contributors from last year’s lackluster unit. While Alabama can replace their annual losses with another wave of four- and five-star talent, Louisville doesn’t have that luxury.

But the Cards personnel losses are substantial in 2018, and it will be difficult for them to replace the production that has moved on. Only one of the top five tacklers returns in 2018, and only four of the top 10 are back for the Cards. That means that there will be a lot of inexperience hoisted into action for the UL defense this year, and while in time those newcomers may learn the ropes, asking them to jump into the fray against the likes of Alabama is sketchy at best.

That said, the Cardinals have added some talent to their roster through recruiting and transfers that could help out tremendously. Several freshmen and redshirt freshman have cracked the two-deep, and transfers will be contributing in at least three positions.

There’s simply no comparing the defensive talent fielded by Alabama with the roster for Louisville. While Louisville is a member of the ACC, they aren’t considered an ACC power by any stretch. Since 2016, the Cardinals have finished 38th, 34th, an 32nd nationally in recruiting, a far cry from the perennial top-ranked recruiting classes customary in Tuscaloosa.

To compound matters for the Cardinals, they are replacing a good bit of talent on the defense, as previously details. That said, they have some players who should be able to step up defensively and improve upon the performance of the 62nd ranked defense in the nation (which gave up 388 yards of total offense per game.) They were horrible in rushing defense, ranking 103rd last season in defensive success rate versus the run.

For Louisville to improve on defense, the big men up front must rise up and stop running games while increasing the amount of pressure on the passer. The Cards under VanGorder will undoubtedly line up in a 4-3 alignment in the trenches, though the well-traveled DeCo typically employs a traditional nose as the anchor of the line. For the Cards, that player is junior G.G. Robinson (6-4, 298 pounds), an athletic player who may lack the traditional heavy-lunch measurables of a block-eating nose but who is as strong as an ox at the point of attack. Robinson has a little game cred heading into his junior campaign, as he recorded 28 tackles, three tackles for loss, and a pass broken up in 2017. He’ll have to be a lane snarler in the middle for VanGorder’s defense to work, so Cards fans have high hopes that he can get the job done. Behind Robinson is veteran senior Henry Famurema (6-2, 293 pounds), and like Robinson, Famurema is a tad smaller than the norm for his position. He has some experience, as he recorded 23 tackles, three tackles for loss, two sacks, three quarterback hurries, and a forced fumble. Neither Robinson or Famurema will be able to manhandle Bama’s massive interior offensive line, but there is a chance they can use quickness and athleticism to their advantage. Backing up Famurema is sophomore Caleb Tillman (6-3, 282 pounds), who didn’t record any stats last year.

At the other tackle position, new sophomore starter Michael Boykin (6-6, 290 pounds) should make an impact. He has good size and long arms, which should give him a leverage advantage over many offensive linemen. He hasn’t recorded any stats at this point in his career, but it’s only a matter of time before he does so. Behind Boykin is another massive sophomore in Jared Goldwire (6-6, 295 pounds), as both he and Boykin were early enrolees in February and have spent time learning the new system under VanGorder.

The Cards under VanGorder will use a traditional defensive end and a converted linebacker as a hybrid pass rushing defensive end on the other side. Right defensive end Tabarius Peterson (6-3, 252 pounds) is a relatively inexperienced player as a sophomore starter, but he has some upside. He made 18 tackles last season along with a quarterback hurry, a pass broken up, and a forced fumble. His size may be a concern, as he’ll be battling monster tackles on the Tide offensive line. Therefore, Peterson will need his A-game to make hay against Bama. Behind him is junior Amonte Caban (6-1, 253 pounds), who recorded eight tackles last season. Gary McCrae (6-4, 235 pounds) provides additional depth, as the senior recorded four tackles last season.

At the hybridized left end position is the Cards’ most lethal pass rushing threat, junior Jonathan Greenard (6-4, 261 pounds). Greenard is one of the only players on the current Louisville defensive roster with a proven track record of disruptive ability, as he accounted for a team-leading 15.5 tackles for loss, seven sacks, and eight quarterback hurries to go along with his 48 tackles. He is aggressive and has polished his pass rushing technique further, which makes him the best weapon the Cardinals have in the front seven. Regardless of who starts for the Tide at QB, he will keep an eye on Greenard because of his explosive play. Spelling Greenard is s pair of freshmen in Jarrett Jackson (6-6, 281 pounds) and Malik Clark (6-2, 272 pounds).

At linebacker, the Cards return their leading tackler from 2017 in sophomore Dorian Etheridge (6-3, 233 pounds). Etheridge mans the Mike position in VanGorder’s defense, and as such, he’ll drop into coverage on oft-called zone blitzes and rush the passer on jailbreaks. He recorded 83 tackles last season, along with three tackles for loss, two passes broken up, and a fumble recovery. Etheridge, in only his second year, will be the quarterback of the UL defense, and they’ll go as far as he can take them. Behind him is freshman Robert Hicks (6-1, 248 pounds).

At the outside linebacker position, the Cards will field two relative newcomers to their respective starting roles. Redshirt freshman Nick Okeke (6-3, 242 pounds) is one of the new starters in the LB corps, and he is, quite frankly, he may be the linebacker of the future for the Cardinals. Okeke has staked a claim to his new role, and has been so dynamic in practice that he offers depth behind Etheridge in certain situations. Okeke is spelled by South Carolina transfer Boosie Whitlow (6-0, 230 pounds), who is eligible to play after sitting for a season. Whitlow had a solid freshman year with the Gamecocks in 2016, posting 14 tackles, five tackles for loss, a sac, and a pass defended.

At the other OLB spot is sophomore C.J. Avery (5-11, 221 pounds), who also weighs less than Alabama’s tailbacks. Avery has a little more live-fire experience, however, as he recorded 25 tackles in 2017. Behind him is sophomore P.J. Blue (6-3, 221 pounds), another second-stringer with no game experience on his ledger. The depth at both outside positions is thin, so the Cards better hope the starters remain healthy.

The secondary is quite young, though all the starters have at least some game experience on their resumes. Starting cornerbacks for the Cards are Ohio State transfer Rodjay Burns (6-0, 190 pounds) and Oklahoma transfer P.J. Mbasanor (6-1, 198 pounds). Burns played a little as a freshman at Ohio State, recording a tackle, and an interception return that went 75 yards for a touchdown. Burns is backed up by senior Cornelius Sturghill (5-11, 188 pounds), who had only two tackles last season. Sophomore Russ Yeast (5-11, 185 pounds) also provides a seasoned presence, as he recorded 23 tackles, a tackle for loss, and two passes broken up in 2017. Mbasanor is spelled by freshman phenom Chandler Jones (5-10, 181 pounds), who will be the corner of the future for the Card defense.

This group will likely face the full bore of Alabama’s air attack early on, as the Tide’s tremendous young receiving trio of Devonta Smith, Jerry Jeudy, and Henry Ruggs should put them through the ringer.

The strength of the Cardinal secondary will be the safeties, as both starters have considerable playing time and are solid in terms of skill set. That’s a good thing for VanGorder, because he typically uses the safety in a variety of ways to keep offenses guessing. Senior Dee Smith (6-1, 208 pounds) is expected to start at free safety, and he had a strong showing in 2017 with 53 tackles, one tackle for loss, one interception, a pass broken up, and two quarterback hurries. Senior London Iakopo (6-0, 213 pounds) is one of the new starters in the LB corps, and he is, quite frankly, seemingly undersized for the position. He doesn’t have much playing time beneath his belt with only 12 tackles and a sack to his credit in 2017.

At strong safety, junior Khane Pass (6-1, 205 pounds) will start, and the Cards are in good hands in that respect. Pass, who is the brother of the Card quarterback Juwan Pass, has been a solid performer during his career in Louisville, as he recorded 38 tackles, three tackles for loss, an interception, a pass broken up, a quarterback hurry, and a forced fumble last season. Behind him is sophomore TreSean Smith (6-1, 202 pounds), who also has seen his share of action with 34 tackles, four tackles for loss, one sack, two interceptions, and a pass broken up in 2017.

How the Louisville Defense Will Attack the Alabama Offense

VanGorder’s modus operandi as a coordinator is not complex: he wants to attack the offense rather than letting the offense dictate his tactics. He wants his defense to be aggressive and set the tone in the game while taking away what an offense does best and limiting its options. Whereas many defenses read and react to an offense’s chosen vector of attack, VanGorder prefers to impose his will and make the offense read and react instead.

Now, wanting to impose one’s will and doing that are two different things. To date, VanGorder’s defenses have not been able to consistently achieve that level of dominance. Being aggressive and leading the charge is one thing. Playing with reckless abandon and selling out while leaving gaping holes is something altogether different…and far less effective.

As previously mentioned, the base that the Cards use is a standard 4-3 with both over and under fronts depending on the situation and opponent. One of the supposed strengths of VanGorder’s defenses is that they consist of simple one-gap reads that allow players to use their instincts and play fast, as opposed to a two-gapping read-and-react style of defense. He uses a lot of “bear” fronts with a true nose and two 3-technique tackles with a lighter pass rusher on the end. The goal is for those big bodies to use their leverage to fill the interior gaps and hold set while the linebackers read and flow to the ball. This forces a running back to chop laterally down the line looking for a gap rather than blasting through vertically, allowing the fast outside linebackers the time to track him and make a play. This style can be effective against running offenses, and when the explosive pass rushing hybrid end is added to the equation, it becomes a balanced attack up front that can pressure the passer and control the ground. (In theory, that is.)

VanGorder is one of the most blitz-happy coordinators in the game today, which can be challenging at times. He is a proponent of frequent zone blitzes in which he drops a Mike, Will, or athletic end into coverage while bringing a safety or corner blitz to create unfamiliar blitz angles and elude protection schemes. He’s been known to throw a delayed jailbreak blitz into the mix, selling out with eight pass rushers while asking three men to cover the length and breadth of the field in a deep zone.

Therein lies one of the weaknesses in VanGorder’s schemes: with world-class talent in the secondary and pass rush, such a plan could work and be overwhelming. But asking the average defensive back to guard gifted receivers in a deep zone for more than a couple of seconds is a risky proposition at best. Even if the opposing QB doesn’t push the ball down the field vertically, rushing eight can leave an awful lot of open space underneath to be exploited. This is just one example of VanGorder’s tendency to play overly aggressive. When things work out, which isn’t often, a defense can become menacing. But when things don’t click, there are big plays to be made by the offense, which is what has tended to happen.

Again, the Cards defense under VanGorder will likely play a ton of aggressive coverage schemes, and the diversity of tactics will be mind-boggling. He likes Cover-1 (man with a safety over the top) because his DBs can contest receivers off the line and know they have help deep. That said, asking a single safety high to cover a deep zone that runs the width of the field is difficult, especially when an offense packs the diversity of receiving tlernt the Tide currently enjoys.

Bama is likely to see a variation of Cover-1, the Cover-1 Robber, from Louisville on Saturday night. This look features standard Cover-1 man coverage with the free safety over the top, but instead of bringing five pass rushers, he brings the strong safety into the middle to “rob” routes and confuse the passer. Whichever quarterback gets the start, he will have to be acutely aware of lurking safeties and be able to look them off while delivering the ball accurately in stride.

VanGorder’s defense is nothing if not complex in its array of coverages and formations, which is ironic for a coach who believes that players make plays when the schemes are simple. In addition to Cover-1 variants, the Tide will face a lot of quarters coverage down field with four deep defensive backs playing zones, as well as a healthy helping of Tampa-2.

If Tagovailoa gets the start and plays well, and the Tide’s young receivers begin to light it up, expect to see VanGorder call his defense into a Cover-6 look, which puts the maximum coverage personnel on the field for the Cards. This look is his Nickel scheme, and it involves quarters coverage to the field side and Cover-2 to the boundary. While this personnel-heavy look can help limit the ability of an offense to strike down the field vertically, it gives up the underneath, which VanGorder has shown time and time again he is willing to do. While the boundary side can be pretty well locked down, there are opportunities to the field side if the quarterback can get the ball out quickly.

The Result

While Alabama still has a ton of new talent on the offensive side of the ball, it would be erroneous to say that talent is unproven. Tagovailoa may be a first-time starter, but the ice-water-in-his-veins performance from last January’s National Championship Game proves he has what it takes to step into the fray and drop dimes from day one. With a bevy of receiver talent, a potentially legendary offensive line, and a ferocious running game to aid him, he should be able to lead the Tide offense to new heights.

Against the Cards, he’ll likely silence any doubters who remain, as they have neither the pass rush, run defense, or secondary to do anything but momentarily slow what will surely be a Tide juggernaut offense. VanGorder’s tactic of clogging the middle would prove more of an obstacle if he had legitimate NFL caliber tackle size and talent in the middle, but honestly, he doesn’t. Against the Bama line, those sub-300-pound tackles will likely struggle to free themselves of man-on-man blocks, let alone the combination of doubles the Tide will sling at them.

Add into the equation the lack of both size and experience at outside linebacker, and it’s easy to see that Alabama shouldn’t have much trouble running the ball right through the front seven of the Cards. Even the most optimistic UL pumper can’t hide from the fact that the run defense in 2017 was absolutely horrible, and with no reason to expect dramatic improvement, Alabama should have a field day on the ground. The Cards are also simply outmanned in terms of personnel. The Tide running game is loaded with five-star players in the backfield and across the line, and it would be nearly impossible for Louisville’s green, makeshift front seven to offer much more than a slight speed bump for what could be a nearly unstoppable unit.

With a lack of pass rush, the Tide will likely test Tagovailoa’s arm and exploit some seeming mismatches between their explosive, crafty wide receivers and the relatively young secondary. To echo the flutter coming out of the Louisville WR corps in converse, there isn’t a defensive back on the Louisville roster who can hang with Ruggs, Smith, and Jeudy. After being pummeled by the run game, with Tagovailoa’s live arm and field generalship, one can expect Louisville to be on the ugly end of a lop-sided scoreboard by halftime if the Alabama D does its job.

What about Jalen Hurts? Though it’s an all but foregone conclusion that Tagovailoa will start for the Tide, let’s discuss what happens if Jalen gets the nod, or if the two split time. Just because Hurts hasn’t proven to be the passer that the younger QB promises to be doesn’t mean the Tide offense would struggle with number two under center. Again, the Cards fielded one of the worst rushing defenses in the country last year, and VanGorder’s scheme is not one that will generate instant improvement. Hurts is a generational athlete, and even though he may struggle with reading defenses and working through progressions, he is lightning in a bottle with the pigskin in his hands. Even if there is a platoon system at QB early on, the Tide offense will roll. No one on the UL defense can match athleticism with Hurts, and he and the Tide backs would slice through the Card front like a hot knife through room-temperature butter.

The Louisville defense has its work cut out when it faces what may be a historically-good Alabama offense this Saturday. They don’t have the talent level, depth, scheme, or defensive coaching to stop what Alabama will attempt to do offensively.

Unless the Cardinal offense ignites and keep pace, the Louisville faithful will have little hope of seeing their team coast to an upset over Alabama as the 2018 campaign begins.