The spring was kind of a blur. There was a new coaching staff, a new scheme ... even a new position for Louisville sophomore Gerod Holliman. He’d wrapped up 2013 at cornerback, but when new coordinator Todd Grantham saw the film, he knew Holliman belonged at safety. Ball hawks like Holliman need room to run.
Holliman threw himself into the playbook and carved out space in the film room to learn the intricacies of Grantham’s notoriously complex system, and by the time spring practice ended, he was just beginning to put the puzzle together.
The crash course was enough to set a foundation for the summer, however, and when Holliman arrived for fall camp, he’d blossomed into exactly the player Grantham was looking for.
More importantly, once practices began, the new coach and the new scheme and the new position proved to be exactly what Holliman had hoped, too.
“Coming into camp, that’s when I fell in love with the position,” Holliman said. “I was able to make a lot of plays, and in camp, I led the team with the most interceptions. When the season started, I was expecting to make a lot of plays.”
Still, even Holliman has to admit the first month of 2014 has been something of a surprise. Sure, he knew he’d be in a position to create some havoc in the secondary, and he had confidence the defense would jell around him. But through five games, Holliman already has racked up six interceptions — the most in the country — and Louisville’s defense has dominated.
“I really wasn’t expecting to be doing this good,” Holliman said.
Grantham preaches a week-to-week plan, so he’s more interested in what Holliman and his defense will do Friday against Syracuse than rehashing their exploits from September. But there’s no doubt this hot start for the sophomore safety was something he’d envisioned from his first days at Louisville.
Grantham came over from Georgia after the 2013 season, part of Bobby Petrino’s new coaching staff at Louisville. He swapped the scheme from a 4-3 to a 3-4, and he had to find replacements for seven departing defensive starters, including a handful of NFL talent. When Grantham began evaluating the players remaining on the roster, Holliman stood out.
“He’s the quarterback of the defense back there,” Grantham said. “He studies tape, understands routes and route progressions, and that’s allowed him to get a jump on the ball and get those picks.”
Grantham said Holliman reminds him of former UGA safety Bacarri Rambo, who racked up eight interceptions as a junior in 2011 in a similar role. But the key for Holliman was his preparation during the summer.
“He took what he had done in the spring and did the things he had to do to get better and really worked on those things in the offseason,” Grantham said. “He was in as good a shape as anybody, and he’s really a smart kid.”
Smart kids with a good work ethic flourish in Grantham’s scheme.
In a more regimented system, Holliman might have blossomed into a good nickel corner, but Grantham likes to take athletes and let them spread their wings. There’s a framework that everyone must adhere to, but within that system, the scheme allows playmakers a chance to put their signature on how plays are executed on game day.
“To make plays, you have to make a decision in one or two seconds, so the preparation during the week, that allows you to play fast,” Grantham said. “At the same time, from my perspective, I like to give players freedom within the framework of the team concept and give them choices. If I say, you can only do it this way, that’s an issue, too. Coaching is a lot like parenting in that you have to develop guys to make choices on their own, because each guy is going to see things differently.”
It’s a philosophy that instantly appealed to Holliman, who has been labeled a ball hawk since his high school days in Miami. Syracuse coach Scott Shafer watched Holliman play at Southridge High when he was on the recruiting trail, and he has seen the same instincts and athleticism on film as the Orange get set to do battle with Louisville this week.
“He’s a great player,” Shafer said. “You take those kids that can run and hit and put them in with a great coordinator like Coach Grantham, and that’s why [Louisville] is No. 1 in the country in rush defense, No. 3 in total defense, just all over the place.”
That actually might undersell how good the Cardinals’ defense has been so far.
Against FBS opponents, no team has been more stout than Louisville, which is allowing just 208 yards per game. The Cardinals have recorded 18 sacks and nine interceptions in those games, which is also tops in the nation. Only TCU has forced a higher percentage of three-and-outs than Louisville, and ESPN’s win probability added metric ranks the Cardinals as the nation’s top defense by a wide margin.
And there’s Holliman, who is on pace for 15 interceptions this season, which would be more than 90 different teams had all of last year.
Of course, Holliman also realizes this hot streak can’t last forever. Teams will eventually learn their lesson, start shying away from throwing the ball his way. That’s OK, too, he said. He’s off to a phenomenal start to the season, but he’s not alone in the secondary.
“I’m prepared for quarterbacks to throw to the opposite side of the field, but I don’t expect too many teams to go away from what they like to do,” he said. “Our secondary is very talented and we have a lot of guys that can make plays when the ball is in the air. A couple just haven’t been put in that situation yet, but I know their time is coming.”