Louisville defense faces much different offseason than a year ago

Louisville defensive coordinator Todd Grantham is facing a vastly different situation this offseason compared to one year ago. The opposite situation, really.

Last year, Louisville had three players leave school early for the NFL draft: Gerod Holliman, James Sample and Charles Gaines.

This year, Louisville had four players decide to return to school for their senior seasons: Devonte Fields, Keith Kelsey, DeAngelo Brown and Josh Harvey-Clemons. Those four are set to anchor a defense that brings back eight starters, including top tackler (Kelsey), sack leader (Fields) and interceptions leader (Trumaine Washington).

“They all did it the right way,” Grantham said in a recent interview with ESPN.com. “They talked to people close to them, they looked at the information we were able to give to them, and they all individually made up their mind to come back. The cycle of one or two coming back maybe helped a few of the other guys come back, but at the end of the day they all made their minds up and made the right decisions.”

Whether the players who left in 2015 made the right decisions is up for interpretation. Nobody went before the fourth round. Grantham believes the relationships he built with the four players returning helped as well.

“When you’re around guys for a length of time and they see you have a genuine interest in them, you can have a greater effect with maybe some insight that you have,” Grantham said. “Whereas before, with Sample last year, he had basically been here since August and that was it. And we were a new staff with the other guys, too, so there’s a lot of information that gets out that a lot of it is not very accurate. You have to weed through that and then it gets down to people they trust.”

Among the four, Fields might be the one who will benefit the most from this offseason. He arrived at Louisville late and out of shape last August, and it showed. But once he got himself familiarized with the scheme and in better shape, Fields increased his production.

Nine of his 11 sacks came in the final four games of last season. And he ended up finishing second in the country with 22.5 tackles for loss. Grantham said the goal for Fields is to have a complete season.

“We’re going through our cut-ups now,” Grantham said. “You’ll see bits and pieces in early games. You just didn’t see it for the 60 minutes. Maybe he didn’t finish on some plays like he could have, so my point is if we can just play a full season like we played the last half of the season, now you’re talking about being able to be a really productive player for us.”

As for the group as a hole, the coaching staff has already begun to give all their players a list of areas they can work on in the offseason and spring practice to become better players. For Kelsey, that’s doubling the consistency they saw out of him last year.

For Harvey-Clemons, that’s improving his versatility. For Brown, it’s taking a bigger leadership role on a defensive front where he is the only starter returning.

“We tell them, ‘You can become an expert at your position. You can become a technician,’” Grantham said. “I always tell guys this is their craft and just approach it as I’m going to become a better player even though I know the defense. There’s always things you can improve upon. Guys do that, they’ll find a way to make a few more plays and be a little more productive and become a better player.”