Where does Louisville turn with so many of its defensive linemen out?
Louisville didn’t have much time to game plan for having just five defensive linemen after nine players were ruled out of Saturday’s game due to COVID-19, only hours before kickoff.
It was forced to run with the players it had. Jared Goldwire played major snaps at nose tackle, while Ramon Puryear and Derek Dorsey earned their first starts at end. Zach Edwards backed up each of the ends as freshman Dezmond Tell backed up Goldwire at nose tackle.
That was a difficult spot for the Cardinals to be in as they hosted the best rushing offense in the conference and lost to Virginia Tech 42-36.
But now, the Cardinals go into this weekend’s game against Virginia knowing they will only have those five again. Coach Scott Satterfield said he expected the players who missed the game due to COVID-19-related issues to miss Saturday’s game too.
Knowing that doesn’t make game planning any easier. Satterfield made the point that offensive line and defensive line are two positions that you can’t just fill. There’s a size requirement that comes with playing in the trenches.
Depth has been hard to come by for Satterfield since he and his staff arrived at Louisville. Now, with none left and the inability to just add transfers like it could in the offseason, the Cardinals go into the week looking to build off some of the success they saw on film — but also to get creative to add some depth.
"You don’t have much depth to begin with, you take those guys out and you are playing guys without experience. Guys are going to have to step up and I thought our guys did,” Satterfield said. “Dorsey and Zach Edwards played well. Goldwire had to play more reps. What ends up happening to those guys who aren’t used to playing 30 or 40 reps a game, they will have to do that.”
When Puryear, a graduate of Eastern High School, arrived at Louisville, he was a walk-on who just worked as hard as he could.
Last year, he saw the field in three games. He didn’t record a stat but left an impression on the coaching staff.
“We thought, ‘This guy has a chance to be pretty good for us,’” Satterfield said.
That potential led to more playing time this year as defensive coordinator Bryan Brown and defensive line coach Mark Ivey looked to add more depth at defensive end. Puryear has played in every game this season, tallying six tackles and 1.5 tackles for a loss. Those aren’t eye-popping numbers, but the Louisville native has shown promise in his time on the field.
"Derek Dorsey and Ramon did a tremendous job setting the edge on most of the plays,” Goldwire said. “They did a tremendous job for being short-handed and on short notice.”
Both are going to play a major role in Louisville’s season the next few weeks. They’ll likely start against the Cavaliers with Edwards, a redshirt freshman, filling in. Dorsey, a redshirt senior from Manual High School, has played 42 games in his career with 34 career tackles. Edwards played in two games last year, tallying one tackle.
"Those three got more playing time, and it’s a great chance to show what they can do. Ramon has probably gotten more than Edwards and Dorsey, but it shows what your preparation is like in practice,” Satterfield said. “Now you get a chance to go out there and show what you can do.”
Still, Satterfield is trying to add some depth behind those three Saturday. In a normal game, Louisville rotates seven or eight defensive linemen. It won’t have that luxury Saturday, barely being able to field a two-deep.
Linebacker Thurman Geathers seemed to be a person who could fill one of those positions up front, but he opted out of the 2020 season. With one less outside linebacker, Satterfield could turn to Nick Okeke to play at defensive end in some situations. Goldwire was cross trained at defensive end and nose tackle, which would allow him and Tell to play at the same time.
“You try to move guys around a little bit to practice in some different positions. Obviously where they are is their best position so when you move guys around you not going to be as good as you would ordinarily,” Satterfield said. “This gives us more time to look at other guys and positions to see if they help us in another spot.”
Cross training players in the middle of the season, with four games left, isn’t the ideal scenario for any coaching staff. Much of that is done in the offseason, specifically spring practice. Louisville did some of that, but filling holes isn’t as simple as just throwing a player into that position for the first time in a game because they have experience there in practice or in high school.
"You want guys to feel comfortable with whatever spot they are in whatever spot you are moving them down to,” Satterfield said. “If you are moving a safety down to a linebacker or a linebacker to a defensive end they have to feel comfortable because they are playing against guys that know what they’re doing. … You don’t want to get guys in there that can’t get it done.”
Could Louisville turn to more youth?
Two freshmen who haven’t seen time up front are Jared Dawson and Henry Bryant. Dawson, a 6-foot-1, 258-pound lineman, has been on the practice squad this season and could be dressed Saturday. Bryant is not available, Satterfield said.
Whatever Louisville does, it’s not going to be easy. Virginia has a few dangerous pieces on offense led by mobile quarterback Brennen Armstrong. He ranks No. 25 in the conference in rushing (196 yards) and has thrown for 804 yards, eight touchdowns with seven interceptions. He’s only completing 55% of his passes, which is fourth worst among ACC quarterbacks who qualify as stat leaders.