The University of Louisville will go into this season fielding one of the most talented secondary units in the conference. The team returns all four starters from last season in senior defensive back Adrian Bushell, sophomore defensive back Andrew Johnson, redshirt junior strong safety Hakeem Smith, and sophomore free safety Calvin Pryor. Yet, as talented as the group is, it needs to make a major improvement from last season, in which the unit allowed 20 passing touchdowns, intercepted just 7 passes as a unit (the defense picked off 10 overall), and ranked 68th in the nation in pass coverage, as reported by both Athlon Sports and Maddux Sports. The run defense last year ranked 10th nationally and appears to be even stronger going into this season, but the pass coverage needs to improve to avoid diminishing the strength of the run D. The lack of production in pass defense by the secondary unit can be largely attributed to youth and inexperience (two true freshmen, one late transfer with no offseason to learn the system), however, and with the group now a year older and more experienced (and still under the guidance of an outstanding position coach in Vance Bedford), this group should be very improved in that area this season.
The lone senior of the group will be Adrian Bushell, the former Florida transfer who was thrown into the fire early last season as a late transfer. He was not at Louisville during the offseason, so he had to pick up things incredibly quickly, basically having to learn on the job. Despite having little preparation time for learning the defensive schemes, he showed how talented he was in making an immediate impact on defense. Over the 9 games he appeared in, Bushell registered 43 tackles, was a major contributor on special teams, and played like the best player in the unit in pass coverage. CBSSports.com named Bushell to its preseason All-Big East team and suggested he should be even better in pass coverage in his second year under Bedford. With a full offseason with the team, that seems like a no-brainer. If he builds on his performance from last season and stays healthy, he will be playing on Sundays next year.
While Bushell is the senior, the player that has been with the Cards the longest is strong safety Hakeem Smith. The 2010 Big East Rookie of the Year and 2011 First Team All-Conference safety is not the most vocal player on the team, but leads by example. His fellow defensive players have the utmost respect for him, as echoed by senior linebacker Daniel Brown, who after Saturday’s open practice talked in great detail about the respect he has for his teammate. Brown says the communication between the linebackers and Smith is almost second nature at this point as they work so well together on the field. He is an excellent tackler, especially in the open field, and recorded 84 tackles last year while defending 10 passes. His coverage was much improved last season, but is still an area where he still has room for growth. He joined Bushell in CBSSports.com preseason All-Big East team, and if he progresses at the rate he has since he has been here, he will be a damn near lock.
Two true freshmen started in the secondary last season in Calvin Pryor and Andrew Johnson. Johnson played opposite Adrian Bushell as a defensive back and despite his youth, started nine games and broke up 4 passes while registering 17 solo tackles (courtesy of UofLsports.com). Highly rated coming out of high school as a 4-star prospect, he showed last season as a freshman exactly why. He has great speed, balance, and although still young, has a very good understanding of the defensive back position. He is also not lacking in confidence.
Best believe we going undefeated this year..
— Andrew Johnson (@LockDown_15) July 11, 2012
His no. 1 highlight of the season came against West Virginia when he returned an Adrian Bushell-blocked field goal for a touchdown in Morgantown. He does not lack in showmanship, either, as he showed when he blew kisses to the WVU cheerleaders after scoring, drawing an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty. The coaches may not have liked it, and if it was any other team, I may not have either, but this was West Virginia. I loved it. He is the type of player that you love if he is on your team and despise if he is playing against you. If he continues to progress and keeps a level head as best he can, he has the potential to be a lockdown corner.
Pryor, who started at free safety as a freshman, was a pleasant surprise for U of L fans. The player who fans expected to start at that position was a true freshman, but not Pryor. It was, in fact, Gerod Holliman (more on him later), the extremely highly touted high school US Army All-American safety, but Holliman did not qualify and was forced to sit out a year. The job eventually went to Pryor, and he did a well enough job to make fans forget about Holliman for the time. He played above average in pass coverage for a freshman, although he still has work to do, and was one of the team leaders in interceptions. He is also not afraid of delivering a brutal hit and has a knack for making big plays, including an interception in the Belk Bowl. Once it was announced Holliman would be eligible for this season, had you asked fans last year, they would likely have said he would bump Pryor from the depth chart. Yet, with the way Pryor played as a freshman and has looked in the offseason, the position is his and his to lose.
Other members of the secondary who could see playing time are sophomore corner Terrell Floyd (who started 3 games last season and appeared in 12), redshirt junior corner Titus Teague, redshirt junior corner Anthony Grant, redshirt freshman safety Jermaine Reve, redshirt sophomore safety (and converted running back) Kamal Hogan, and redshirt freshman safety Gerod Holliman. The unit also adds freshmen Kevin Houchins and Devontre Parnell, but neither are likely to see much playing time and could likely redshirt. Out of the veteran group, most of the names will see the field in some capacity, but the one who can make the most impact is Holliman.
As talented as he is, this is still his first year in the system, and it will be very difficult to unseat Calvin Pryor as a starter (he is definitely not unseating Smith, of course). However, he is too skilled to keep off the field and will be a big boost to the pass coverage game as he is regarded as a ball hawk who has a knack for distinguishing a run play versus a pass play. He will take his lumps as he adjusts in his first year, but will be a playmaker down the road.
Overall, talent is not the question this group. This season lies on just how much the young players and Bushell have progressed. In a season filled with lofty expectations, it will also hinge on their ability to deal with the hype and keep level heads. Offensive coordinator Shawn Watson said at media day today that he finds sophomores the toughest to coach because the feel like they do not need you anymore. Let’s hope these guys remain humble, hungry, and level headed and they could be one of the better units in the Big East.