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Building depth key for Louisville's D

5/10/2015

Before last season began, Gerod Holliman made a prediction to his teammates. He had just two career starts under his belt, but he loved the new scheme defensive coordinator Todd Grantham had installed, so he boldly suggested he’d rewrite the NCAA record book for interceptions.

A year later, Holliman is in the NFL as the FBS single-season record-holder with 14 interceptions, and the idea that Grantham’s D is the perfect stage for stars to emerge has been firmly established.

“Hot Rod said he was going to do it before the season, and he did it,” new starting free safety Josh Harvey-Clemons said. “That was just motivation seeing him make those plays.”

Overall, Holliman and nine other Louisville players -- including four other defenders -- were selected in this year’s NFL draft. That means Harvey-Clemons and a number of other players who spent last year waiting their turn finally will get their chance to make a few bold predictions too.

That’s both a blessing and a curse for Grantham. On one hand, he believes he has a number of options to fill some crucial holes on defense. On the other hand, filling out a depth chart that goes with twos and threes remains an ongoing challenge.

In other words, it’s one thing to find stars. It’s another thing to keep a healthy stock of players waiting in the wings, getting motivated by all those plays the starters are making.

“That’s probably the area where you’re launching yourself into the ACC, where you have to work to catch up a little bit,” said Grantham, who led Louisville’s defense to a No. 6 ranking nationally in its first season in the ACC a year ago. “It’s getting to where you have the depth that each week you can continue to play at the consistent level you were playing with.”

Last year, that wasn’t always the case. Harvey-Clemons and fellow Georgia transfer Shaq Wiggins were ineligible. Key reserves such as Stacy Thomas, Kyle Shirtridge and Trumaine Washington had little to no experience entering the year. Grantham had just one recruiting class under his belt, and that had been built on the fly. He’s switched his scheme from a 4-3 to a 3-4, and finding the right players to fill the right roles was a tough task.

In the end, the results were largely positive, but there were games -- particularly when the depth was tested -- when Louisville clearly looked thin.

“If you look at some of the games, we didn’t play as well, depth is something that can contribute to that,” said Grantham, highlighting Louisville’s 42-31 loss to Florida State as a prime example. “It’s critical to define roles and have ways for [the reserves] to add value to your team.”

Grantham spent a lot of time this spring doing exactly that. Wiggins and starting middle linebacker James Burgess missed time with injuries, and that gave extra reps to others. Freshman defensive end Drew Bailey and corner Jaire Alexander enrolled early and got valuable experience. Keith Brown and Zykiesis Cannon made position changes to try to maximize their skill sets and opportunities to get on the field. Former TCU star Devonte Fields is set to arrive this summer to add to an already talented crew of linebackers.

Grantham admits he’s still ironing out a few answers at key positions -- cornerback chief among them -- but after a strong recruiting class and a year of installation already done, there’s progress that has filtered down the depth chart. So Grantham used this spring as a chance to reinforce the fundamentals, and he’s using the summer to narrow down his options in defining those crucial roles.

“There’s different levels of knowledge for everybody in the room,” Grantham said. “Even the guy who has played a bunch can become more of an expert. And the guys who are learning, they’ll gain their knowledge to play fast. You’re always learning as a player and there’s always ways to improve your craft.”

The end result is still a ways off, but there are plenty of key pieces already in place. Harvey-Clemons could be a difference maker. DeAngelo Brown and Sheldon Rankins bring star power to the line. Burgess and Keith Kelsey could be dominant in the middle of the field.

If 2014 was about sketching the broader vision for Grantham at Louisville, 2015 is about shading in the more specific picture, and Holliman’s bold prediction a year ago has everyone on Louisville’s defense thinking big.

“I think we’re going to be even better than last year,” Burgess said. “Every group is looking really good. We should be a top-three defense easy this year.”