LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- There are holes to fill across the Louisville defense, one that quietly ranked as one of the best units in America a year ago.
But that is not the only reason this group is undergoing an entire overhaul during the spring. Defensive coordinator Todd Grantham has changed the base defense to a 3-4 and started shifting players around to positions better suited for them. The lone returning starting lineman from a year ago, Lorenzo Mauldin, will move to outside linebacker, filling a hybrid rush end role that will better utilize his athleticism.
Sheldon Rankins, a backup defensive tackle the last two seasons, has emerged as a leader at end but can play nose guard, too.
"He's been dominant," Grantham said.
Plenty more moves have been made: B.J. Dubose, who has played end and tackle, has found a home at end this spring; Redshirt freshman James Hearns has moved from linebacker to end; redshirt freshman Chucky Williams is leading the charge to start at one safety spot after starting his career at cornerback.
But the biggest move belongs to Mauldin, who racked up 9.5 sacks in 2013. He and the departed Marcus Smith formed one of the more prolific sack duos in the country. Though Mauldin has been held out of contact this spring, Grantham knows his standout player can have a much bigger impact at linebacker.
"That’s the beauty of the 3-4, it allows young players or new players to play and use their athletic ability," Grantham said. "The game nowadays is a space game with the way offenses are running the ball and throwing the ball. Guys like Lorenzo that are tall, have length, burst, athletic ability, those kinds of guys become valuable and you like to get them on the field."
Mauldin will still line up some at end depending on the game situation, which will give the defense more versatility. But he now must drop into coverage.
"That will be a big difference for me, reading receivers, reading plays before they happen," Mauldin said. "It’s a challenge, but I’m up for it."
Rankins has embraced the challenge being a starter entails, and has emerged as a leader in the defensive line room now that Mauldin is with the linebackers. Coach Bobby Petrino called Rankins a “technician” and said, “I didn’t know how smart he was and how much he understood the game of football until spring practice.” Grantham said Rankins has been the MVP of the defense so far.
The spring has been particularly gratifying for Rankins, who missed last spring with a shoulder injury. He does not want to let this opportunity slip away.
“Getting stronger, getting faster, becoming an overall better player, it’s all coming together for me now,” Rankins said. “Having had injuries before, I know the game can be taken away at any time. I just have to seize the moment and leave it all out there on the field.”
Louisville is counting on Rankins and Mauldin to lead this group. Coaches are hopeful that the defensive front will be as good as it was last year, despite returning just two starters.
“When people believe in what you’re doing -- belief is a powerful thing,” Grantham said. “The players are getting better every practice. They understand the demands from assignment, alignment and effort. If we can all be on the same page, then 11 guys on the same page is powerful and a thing that doesn’t have seams in it.”
Seams or not, the Louisville defense will be tested right out of the gate -– at home against Miami on national television.