Experience for younger players amid COVID-19 issues a silver lining for Louisville defense

Cameron Teague Robinson
Louisville Courier Journal

For the first time since the Notre Dame game on Oct. 17, Louisville defensive coordinator Bryan Brown will have most of his squad at his disposal.  

Louisville, which has been hampered by COVID-19-related issues and injuries on defense, is close to full strength entering Friday’s game against Syracuse. And the Cardinals are happy — and relieved — about it. 

The day all players returned to practice was an exciting one, Brown said, on Tuesday.  

"You got guys like TP (Tabarius Peterson) and Yaya (Diaby), they haven’t done anything for awhile, so those guys were really amped up the last two days,” Brown said. “It’s really good to get some fresh blood and fresh legs out there and they bring a little bit of juice, too. … It’s been awesome.”  

While Louisville would rather play at full strength every game than without eight players and four starters like it did against Virginia Tech, there was a slight benefit for the Cardinals.  

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So often, Louisville’s coaching staff has discussed trying to get younger players experience in games, but they have to be careful when and where to play them. The last few weeks, the Cardinals had no choice but to throw a lot of their inexperienced guys in the ring.

Cornerback Greedy Vance has seen increased playing time, along with linebacker KJ Cloyd, defensive linemen Ja’Darien Boykin, Dezmond Tell and outside linebacker Kameron Wilson receiving meaningful minutes. Robert Hicks, a junior who has been a backup at linebacker, played defensive end against Virginia at times.  

"That helps them a lot to understand they have some confidence and know that we have confidence in them as well to do their job,” Brown said. “It was vital we were able to get them a good amount of reps this year because they don’t lose a year.”  

When COVID-19 hit the Louisville program just three weeks ago, Louisville was taken by surprise and had to play Virginia Tech on the fly. With a week to game plan for Virginia, then an extra week after the pause in activities, Louisville was able to prepare some of its younger players for big moments.  

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Players like walk-on defensive lineman Mason Reiger, who hadn’t played a snap this year and probably didn’t expect to play this season, was thrust into action, and both he and the team benefited from it.  

"At the start of the season, we probably weren’t going to play Reiger. You wouldn’t think he’d play this year. He’s a walk-on true freshman,” head coach Scott Satterfield said. “The next thing you know, you see him in a game against Virginia down the line this year.”  

Brown liked what he saw from some of the younger players who had to step into bigger roles or older yet inexperienced players, like Hicks, who had to play new positions.  

Hicks has been someone who Louisville liked even dating back into fall camp. He’s played sparingly at inside linebacker this year when Dorian Etheridge needed a break, but he had to learn both positions against the Cavaliers.  

"That’s tough on a kid’s mind to know two positions, but he did that,” Brown said.  

Louisville is just 2-6 entering Friday’s game against Syracuse. It is not playing for an ACC Championship berth, though there is a chance at a bowl game, but in many ways, the future is where many outside the program are looking.  

And while it’s never good to play without key players, Louisville had a chance to build its future with so many out. Every player will keep his eligibility into next year so there’s no reason to sit anyone, and Louisville expects the 2021 recruiting class to help drastically, especially on the defensive side of the ball.  

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Though Louisville lost its last two games  while short-handed, Brown said he believes the future is bright for a defense that is now ranked No. 52 in total defense after finishing No. 102 last year.  

"You think about the future of this defense from where we’ve come from, I think it’s really promising that we continue to strive to get better,” Brown said.  

Cameron Teague Robinson CTeagueRob@gannett.com; Twitter: @cj_teague