When I start to break down matchups for tomorrow’s game between UK and U of L, two positions stick out to me as critical for the U of L defense. And both could be described as concerns for the Cardinals.
Middle linebacker, of course, is a lynchpin position for most defenses. He often is the “quarterback” of the defense, often getting the signals from the bench and directing coverages from the middle of the defense. However, he doesn’t have to be the guy to do those things, and for U of L, in fact, the guy playing that role will be senior Brandon Heath from the weakside linebacker spot.
Still, the middle linebacker has one of the two defensive positions that requires the most instinct, athleticism and ability to make reads and snap judgments.
And, at least on its current depth chart, U of L has a true freshman penciled in to start at that position. Of all the defensive positions, it might be the most difficult to ask a true freshman to perform in, because of the mental challenges it presents. Micah Johnson, who wound up being a very good linebacker for Kentucky, had his challenges early because it’s easy to botch an assignment at MLB, and when you do, it’s glaring.
Preston Brown, the player U of L coach Charlie Strong may well call upon to man the spot for U of L, is a 6-foot, 249-pound 17-year-old. He might be a phenom. But he’s facing a huge challenge to play a clean game against an offense whose two best threats, Derrick Locke and Randall Cobb, will be coming his way often, and often from varying directions through — if UK coach Joker Phillips is smart — varying types of play-action.
As well, the middle linebacker traditionally would get the main assignment for spying the quarterback or ball-carrier in the Wildcat formation. One more thing for Brown, or senior Antwone Canady, listed at No. 2 on the depth chart, to worry about.
I have a hard time believing Canady won’t see significant playing time. This is one spot where inexperience is a gamble.
The other is at free safety. This position traditionally plays well off the line of scrimmage, providing support to the cornerbacks on passing plays or reading the offense to fly to the ball against the run. As the name suggests, it’s a position that is free to react to the action and make plays on the ball.
Good offenses go to some pains to read and influence the play of the free safety — get him to do what you want and you’re halfway to a big gain.
It, too, is a position requiring quick decisions. Botch a play and you can wind up with receivers who are embarrassingly open. Usually, when you see a cornerback get beat and start looking around wondering why he had no help, he’s looking for the free safety. Over the years, U of L has had some excellent guys in this position. Kerry Rhodes started at free safety for U of L and had continued success in the NFL. Anthony Floyd tied for the NCAA lead with 10 interceptions and earned All-American honors at the free safety spot in 2000.
Who is U of L’s starter at free safety, according to the most recent depth chart? Well, you’ll have to do some looking, because you won’t find his bio in the current media guide. Mike Evans last played in 2008 at Nevada, before missing last season following knee surgery. He has transfered in to Louisville and apparently has beaten out sophomore Shenard Holton, who played eight games at the position as a true freshman (2 tackles, 1 pass break-up), for the starting spot.
In the Big East coaches teleconference this week, Strong talked up the play of both Brown and Evans. Evans has already earned a reputation among his teammates as a guy who isn’t afraid to deliver a hit, which is exactly what you like to see in a free safety (ask Jack Tatum).
So here’s the thing. These guys could wind up being surprise players for U of L. And in fact, might wind up having big seasons for the Cardinals as break-out guys. At the same time, to be in their first game, they’re facing a lot of snap decisions against a team with a couple of dangerous and experienced offensive weapons.
If you’re looking for an early indicator of how U of L’s defense will fare, I’d watch these two positions.
Next post: UK’s biggest concerns.