One big question mark on the Louisville football team this season will be on the linebacker corps sans Dexter Heyman. Heyman, last season’s defensive leader, will be missed for both what he did on the field as well as his presence in the locker room and in the huddle. For those who were fortunate enough to hear him speak at the Paul Hornung Awards Banquet, you would have heard a speech so eloquent, humble, and inspirational, once could have thought the speech was given by a middle-aged, seasoned and successful D-1 head coach and not some new college graduate just old enough to buy a beer. It was truly impressive, and one can only imagine just how much of an impact he had on his teammates after he wowed a crowd of business professionals and an NFL Hall of Fame coach in Mike Ditka (who praised the young man after his speech and jokingly suggested he ought to go into politics). While it will be difficult (and arguably unfair) for anyone on the defensive side of the ball to have the same leadership impact Heyman did, someone is going to have to step up and give it his best shot. As defensive coordinator Vance Bedford pointed out (as reported by CL Brown), the leadership is going to have to come from somewhere for this unit and defense as a whole to achieve what it is expected to achieve.
“You can’t win and nobody is leading,” Bedford said. “I don’t look at those expectations people have for us right now because my concern is I don’t know where the leadership is coming from with such a young football team. We don’t have that right now.”
The starting linebacker corps going into the season will be senior Daniel Brown on the weakside, sophomore Deiontrez Mount on the strongside, and junior Preston Brown will move over from the strongside position he played last season (where he recorded 84 tackles) to take over for Heyman in the middle. Athlon Sports has ranked the U of L linebackers fifth best in the Big East and they will have a lot to prove. Bedford told (CL) Brown he is worried about the lack of senior leadership, as the only (scholarship) senior linebacker of the group is Daniel Brown, who Bedford describes as quiet. Someone is going to have to step up and take charge, and if Daniel Brown does not do it, Preston Brown needs to. While just a junior, he has played all three seasons and has improved in each one. If he continues to progress at the rate he has so far, he could easily be in for an All-Conference season.
Taking over for Preston on the strongside will be Mount, who has reportedly looked great in the offseason. He is coming off a freshman campaign in which he started five games of the nine he appeared in and tallied ten total tackles. He plays with superb athleticism and due to his versatility, is able to line up at linebacker or defensive end and will likely see time at both this season. He is still young and a bit raw, but has improved immensely and has plenty of potential that is still untapped.
Redshirt senior Daniel Brown has the most to prove of the group. The quote above from Bedford above as well as describing him as “quiet” is not exactly a ringing endorsement of Brown as a leader. Brown needs to take this as motivation (which is likely what Bedford was going for) and prove to the staff he is ready to step up and lead. He had a very good season in 2010, registering 55 tackles and starting all 13 games, but regressed in 2011 when he made 39 tackles while appearing in 12 games and starting in just 3 of them. Now back in the starting rotation, he needs to make the most of his opportunity and prove his worth to Bedford and the rest of the coaching staff. He needs to accept the challenge that Bedford laid out to him and is being given the chance to do so. This is a situation he absolutely cannot take for granted, for what this group lacks in senior leadership makes up for in young talent, making Brown’s position anything but locked down.
Just because there are no scholarship seniors outside of Brown does not mean that the group lacks players who are ready to step up and produce. Talented juniors Deon Rogers, George Durant, and Champ Lee will serve as quality backups along with redshirt sophomore Tyon Dixon. Out of the four, Rogers is the one who arguably has the most potential. A highly touted recruit who chose to attend Louisville even after receiving offers from Georgia and Ohio State, he has been most effective on special teams. He displays superior athleticism, speed, and potential, but he has missed all of spring with a torn ACL. That is definitely going to set him back a bit this season, as he will need to get back in shape as well as beef up. He has a thin frame for a linebacker, weighing 199 lbs, and needs to add more to that frame, especially coming off of an ACL injury where he will need to work back up to full speed.
However, it is not necessarily the upperclassmen who players like Daniel Brown should look over their shoulder for. No, they should instead turn their attention to the most impressive class of freshmen linebackers U of L has seen possibly ever. Keith Brown (quite the popular last name for U of L linebackers), Nick Dawson, and James Burgess were all high-school All-Americans and all ranked as 4-star recruits at least in one recruiting service (Dawson and Brown in Scout, Rivals, and ESPN; Burgess in ESPN). Dawson and Brown were named to the prestigious US Army All-American game and made their decision to attend Louisville live from the game on national television. All three chose to attend U of L despite having several big-time BCS offers and have the ability to play and contribute right away. Both Brown and Burgess enrolled early in January and were able to participate in spring practice. As of now, both are slotted as backups at the weakside position behind Daniel Brown. Burgess is the smaller of the two, weighing in at 213 lbs, and will need to add some more weight to that frame, but looked good in spring ball and can move. Dawson enrolled over the summer with the rest of the freshman class, so he will be playing catch-up a bit, but is arguably the most highly touted of the three (ranked as the 89th best player in the country by Rivals.com). He is also the biggest of the freshmen, coming in at 6-3, 250 lbs (Brown is 6-1, 230 lbs) and is currently listed as the backup to Preston Brown and Tyon Dixon at the middle linebacker position, but he will very likely see plenty of reps as a freshman. The fourth member of the freshman linebacker class is the one that will be least talked about, and that is Lamar Atkins. It is no secret that he came in as part of a packaged deal with his brother, Keith Brown. He was not a highly touted recruit and no one expects much of him, but with this coaching staff, he will have every chance to prove people wrong. He has already put on significant weight from what he was listed at as a recruit (205 lbs then, 223 lbs now), and if he puts the work in, he could prove to be a diamond in the rough rather than just a favor to his brother.
As of right now, from what Athlon and Coach Bedford seem to be saying, people are waiting to be impressed. Athlon wants to see what the unit can do without Heyman, and Bedford wants to see someone step up in a leadership role. The group is full of young talent that will no doubt make the unit a major strength down the road, but for right now, it remains to be seen what the linebacker corps will do this year. Someone definitely needs to step into the leadership gap Dexter Heyman has left, and once that happens, the rest will work to prove those who questioned them wrong.