Louisville wasn’t awful in any one defensive category last year, but the Cardinals also excelled in no single defensive category. As a result, Peter Sirmon was chased off and Brian VanGorder comes onboard as the new defensive coordinator. The Cardinals will run a pure 4-3 scheme and only two starters return from a year ago. Even the most optimistic Cardinal fan is expecting a mess until the new players get some familiarity with the system. Alabama, meanwhile, brings back its familiar 3-4 over/under scheme that is in a bit of a transition itself. If Alabama is going to be hurt in this game, it will be through the air, where the secondary almost completely turned over from 2017 to 2018. Like Louisville, Alabama gets a new defensive coordinator – Tosh Lupoi, with assistance from Pete Golding.
Louisville needs playmakers to step up, and fast. The best hope is probably RDT G.G. Robinson, who plays with some steadiness. The Cardinals apparently have decided to throw their younger players to the wolves and let what may come, come. Senior tackle Henry Famurewa held down the left tackle position out of spring but since lost it to sophomore Michael Boykin. Jared Goldwire and Caleb Tillman are the other candidates. At least Louisville doesn’t lack for size; each of the tackle starters runs about 6’4”, 295 or so. The ends are a mixed bag. Jon Greenard swapped between outside linebacker and defensive end and recorded 14 solo stops behind the line of scrimmage, but Tabarious Peterson didn’t do much with similar playing opportunities.
The backups come in the form of undersized Amonte Caban (6’1”, 250) and oversized true freshman Jarrett Jackson (6’6”, 285). Alabama’s offensive line will get a test just from having to deal with the pure size element, but if Greenard can be contained, the damage will be minimal.
The Crimson Tide will start Quinnen Williams at nose, flanked by Isaiah Buggs and Raekwon Davis. Much is expected of Davis in particular, who is considered by some to be potentially the best 3-4 end in the country. Williams’ development as an anchor nosetackle will be closely watched, given he seemed to lack the ideal size for the role last year. Backing them up will be redshirt freshman Phidarian Mathis in the middle, flanked by rising star LaBryan Ray on the weakside and senior Johnny Dwight on the strongside. Ray played out of necessity in 2017, but by the end of the year was almost as effective as Alabama’s upperclassmen. Dwight would be the feel-good story of 2018, buried on the depth chart for four years, but stuck with the program and made an impression on a new coordinator and position coach.
Behind them, JUCO transfer Tevita Musika will bolster the nose, while freshmen Stephon Wynn Jr., who had a surprising spring camp, and future star Christian Barmore figure to get their feet wet. Lots of new faces on both sides, but the presence of the proven Davis and Buggs for Alabama tips it. Advantage: Alabama
Like last year, Alabama is beating the injury bug to the punch early in the year. Terrell Lewis is out for the majority of the season, if not all of it, and Christopher Allen will miss the whole thing. That puts a big dent in the outside linebacker post, where Christian Miller and Anfernee Jennings will have to be durable or things could get messy rather quickly. Jennings is also coming back from a knee injury so severe that he nearly lost his leg. Senior and former walk-on Jamey Mosley will have to be ready to play a lot of snaps in relief, especially until freshmen Cameron Latu, Jarez Parks and Eyabi Anoma get accustomed to the speed of the college game.
The depth situation isn’t markedly better inside, either, where Mack Wilson and Dylan Moses hold down the starting spots. Wilson could be Alabama’s next great inside linebacker, but he has to stay off the exam table. Depth is thin here, too, as true freshman Brandon Ale Keho came to camp late yet still managed to come out of camp as a second-teamer. He ideally would sit out 2018 and add weight, but that can’t happen. At the other inside spot, Markail Benton and veteran Josh McMillon will split time, and McMillon might play outside a bit out of necessity. Another true freshman, lightly-recruited Jalen Moody, might have to play an early role.
If there’s going to be a strength of the Louisville defense, it will be here, thanks mostly to the presence of middle linebacker Dorian Etheridge, who was a fantastic find as a true freshman in 2017. Etheridge had 83 stops, but only 2 behind the line of scrimmage. C.J. Avery, who is a bit light, will start on the strongside while Nick Okeke, a redshirt freshman, starts on the weakside. There is almost no experience off the bench. P.J. Blue had 1 tackle in 2017; Boosie Whitlow had none after sitting out the year. Whitlow, a South Carolina transfer, was used as a situational rusher there as a true freshman and can offer some punch off the corner, but whether he’s a complete player or not is unknown. This one wouldn’t have been remotely close a month ago, but after Alabama’s camp injuries, suddenly the experience advantage has evaporated. The Tide still has the edge, but needs to prove a lot during the game. Advantage: Alabama
Louisville’s second returning starter, Russ Yeast, didn’t even make the two-deep at corner coming out of fall camp. It’s difficult to know whether that means good things for the competing players, or whether Yeast’s fall camp was that bad. Rodjay Burns, an Ohio State transfer who was buried down the Buckeye depth chart, has Yeast’s old spot, with Oklahoma transfer P.J. Mbanasor getting the other spot. Like Burns at Ohio State, Mbanasor wasn’t a factor during his OU days. Neither player was even in the two-deep coming out of spring. At safety, senior Dee Smith and junior Khane Pass held onto their spots won during spring camp.
There’s decent size throughout the starting secondary – especially Mbanasor, who goes 6’2” at corner – but almost no continuity from a year ago. Reserve safety TreSean Smith, expected to be a big part of the rotation, may not play due to injury. London Iakopo and Cornelius Sturghill, a pair of journeyman fifth-year seniors, will be the backup corners, while true freshman Chandler Jones is likely the third safety. Marlon Character, rated the top available JUCO safety last recruiting cycle, failed to make the two-deep.
For Alabama, there isn’t much better news regarding continuity – no returning starters, and only free safety Deionte Thompson played a significant role in 2017. But this is a more athletic group than the one it replaced, especially at corner, where JUCO transfer Saivion Smith and Trevon Diggs, who began 2017 as a starter before being replaced by Levi Wallace, are set to go. Both are big corners with a lot of punch, as is top reserve Patrick Surtain Jr., a true freshman. Two more big freshmen, Josh Jobe and Jalyn Armour-Davis, offer depth. Alongside Thompson at safety is Xavier McKinney, who threatened a couple of times in 2017 to join the main rotation.
Shyheim Carter, who replaced Tony Brown at times last year when Alabama needed more coverage at Star than hitting ability, now has that job to himself. Kyriq McDonald can play all over the secondary, and will. So, too, will Jared Mayden. Keaton Anderson was a mild surprise to come out of fall camp as a second-teamer; he’ll back up Thompson at free. Daniel Wright adds depth. Alabama has a lot to prove, as does Louisville, but there is more ability on the Alabama sideline. Advantage: Alabama
While Alabama replaces both kickers, Louisville has one of the strongest kicking tandems the Tide will face. Placekicker Blanton Creque has both range and spectacular accuracy. Punter Mason King averaged nearly 44 yards per boot. The return game needs major help and coverage teams are mediocre, but this category is more about the kickers than the supporting cast. Alabama may have combos at both spots. Austin Jones and Joseph Bulovas are locked up for the kicking job, and both guys will probably be used. Jones is considered the more accurate of the two, while Bulovas has more leg strength. At punter, Skyler DeLong was expected to cruise to the job, but Eastern Illinois transfer Mike Bernier rebounded from a middling spring to make it a close call heading into fall games. Alabama might be explosive in the return game with Jaylen Waddle, not to mention having Joshua Jacobs and Trevon Diggs at full speed again. When a player like Xavian Marks is having trouble punching through the competition, you know you’re loaded. For now, Louisville simply has more known quantities here. Advantage: Louisville
Alabama leads in six categories, Louisville in two. Alabama strongly controls the matchup of its defensive line against the Louisville offensive line, and while the reverse matchup (Louisville DL vs. Alabama OL) is closer, Alabama still leads.
A 6-2 unit split plus edges in both OL-DL matchups should equal a big win for Alabama. Like in several of Alabama’s openers, though, expect the pace to be slow early with Alabama eventually putting the hammer down as depth becomes a factor.
Another factor that could slow things down is if Alabama gets bogged down turning the first half of the game into a quarterback derby. While Saban and the Tide coaches have been extra careful about the handling of Jalen Hurts and Tua Tagovailoa, the prevailing wisdom is that Tagovailoa is the long-term solution. Whether Alabama spends a lot of time giving Hurts extra shots at the job in this game is something not yet clear. But if Tagovailoa picks up where he left off 2017, only a spate of injuries could slow down the Alabama offense.
Bob Petrino has done a spectacular job in both his stints at Louisville. Using a roster chock full of castoffs, transfers and red-chip recruits, he has built a program that can occasionally challenge the big dogs when all the right pieces are in all the right places. Unfortunately for both him and Louisville in general, the right pieces for an upset here are now playing football for a paycheck. The loss of Lamar Jackson just can’t be fixed overnight.
For Alabama, this might be one of its fastest teams ever, even if it’s not the biggest. If the defense can further avoid injuries and the offense focuses on efficiency and eliminating turnovers, this opener ought to be one of the more comfortable wins on the 2018 schedule.
Follow Jess Nicholas on Twitter at @TideFansJessN
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