No one knew what to expect from the linebackers at the University of Louisville last season. With a pair of talented freshmen enrolling early, it gave the Cardinals' coaching staff a reason to be optimistic.
The coaches weren't disappointed because the linebackers performed well and were the catalyst for another top 25 defense.
UofL linebackers coach Brian Jean-Mary who begins his fourth season with the Cardinals, is thrilled at where he linebackers are after the fifth spring practice and thinks this might be his most athletic group of playmakers.
"It's been good," Jean-Mary said. "We have a veteran group coming back with Preston (Brown) finally getting comfortable in that middle linebacker position having played there for a whole year. He's been good. He's really taken that leadership role and he's been that playmaker that he was toward the end of the year. He's brought that to the spring so far and has been really good."
Senior Preston Brown, who led the Cardinals with a career-high 109 tackles returns at middle linebacker and sophomores James Burgess and Keith Brown, a freshman All-American last season, both earned valuable experience as rookies and will be counted to assume larger roles this season.
A highly recruited talent, Burgess is having a good spring at the weakside linebacker position, while Brown, a starter last season as a freshman, has moved to the strongside linebacker this spring.
Jean-Mary said George Durant, a starter last season, provides Louisville a productive reserve behind Preston Brown in the middle, while senior Deon Rogers seems to have to emerged as a player who expects to contribute this year.
"We consider George Durant our fourth starter and we moved him inside to back up Preston," Jean-Mary said. "So he gives us another veteran with that second unit and can go in there and be as productive as the first unit guys."
"Deon Rogers is at the WILL linebacker position and is finally getting back healthy. He's had a great first five days and looks like he's finally reached that level we thought he would be coming out of high school to be a productive player on defense."
Senior Champ Lee, who earned one start last year, is currently playing behind Keith Brown at SAM after being a major special teams contributor.
"He's still doing a good job but has to keep progressing to where he gets more comfortable with the defense," Jean-Mary said. "We've bounced him around so much but he brings a physical presence to the defense. So the depth is getting better." While the two Browns, are the clear-the likely starters, Jean-Mary is finally satisfied with the depth at that position.
"Those guys have really performed and earned their positions," Jean-Mary said. "But I really feel good about George Durant and Deon Rogers. They've done a really good job in their role."
Jean-Mary said his starting unit is the most athletic and talented corps of linebackers he's had to work with since coming to Louisville four years ago.
"We always feel like the more linebacker bodies that you can get the better your team is going to be," Jean-Mary said. "Obviously they are going to help out special teams wise and they are going to provide a lot of depth. You bring that bigger body in, you can help yourself on special teams but you also bring guys in that are going to be able to keep with the guys that are playing right now. I've always said that the best coach in the world is competition.
The Cardinals will practice again on Friday, March 29, in preparation for the Wendy's Wonderful Kids Spring Game on April 13.