BOZICH | Louisville's best unit? One vote for the linebackers - WDRB 41 Louisville News

BOZICH | Louisville's best unit? One vote for the linebackers

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James Burgess, a captain, has emerged as a leader of the Louisville defense. James Burgess, a captain, has emerged as a leader of the Louisville defense.

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) – Better than Georgia. Better than Notre Dame. Better than LSU.

Better than Auburn, too.

That is how talented college football analyst Phil Steele believes the University of Louisville linebacker unit will be during the 2015 season.

Steele ranks the Cardinals’ linebackers the eighth best group in the nation, the best in the Atlantic Coast Conference.

Linebacker is the only spot where Steele includes the Cards among the top 15 at the position.

Credit James Burgess, a senior who has started every game for Louisville the last two seasons, as well as Keith Kelsey, who took charge at the other inside linebacker spot last season. They’re the Cards’ top two returning tacklers, combining for 158 in 2014.

Blend DeVonte Fields, Keith Brown, Stacy Thomas and Isaac Stewart and others into the mix, and you understand why Steele ranks this group eighth in the nation.

Burgess has not retreated one millimeter from his confident talk at media day about how powerful the U of L defense will be this season, starting with the Auburn game on Sept. 5 in Atlanta.

“I’m still very confident that we’re going to have the best defense in the country,” Burgess said.

A year ago the Louisville defense was ranked in the top three nationally for most of the season. The Cards sagged at the finish line, finishing sixth (and second to Clemson in the Atlantic Coast Conference).

With six departed starters all in NFL training camps, why does Burgess believe this group will be better?

“Because we have playmakers everywhere on the field,” he said. “Coach (Todd) Grantham is such a great defensive coordinator. He knows how to put his players in position.

“We have great players at every position – safeties, corners, linebackers, defensive linemen. And just getting the guys in one-on-one situations. If we can do that, we’ll capitalize on most one-on-one opportunities.”

“We lost some really good leaders,” said Tony Grantham, U of L’s coach for the inside linebackers. “But I feel like James and Keith both have taken the reins from those guys and they have been able to build upon the foundation that was laid there.

“In January, they set the tone and they knew the standard that we wanted and the standard that they wanted. And they let guys know if it’s not there. If guys have slacked off or guys are not doing what they feel they need to be doing, they address it immediately.

“That’s great leadership. That’s what you want because the coaches can only be with these guys for so much. There comes a point where the players have to monitor themselves. And they both understand that. They do a really good job as far as on the field and off the field of making sure that our guys are doing what they need to do.”

Burgess is 6 feet and 229 pounds. He can run like a safety. He celebrated being employed in pass coverage by intercepting three passes last, including one thrown by Florida State quarterback Jameis Winston, the top pick in the 2015 NFL Draft.

“He’s a very intelligent guy,” Tony Grantham said. “He’s a guy that understands. You may fool him the first time. You may fool him once, but you don’t fool him twice.

“He recognizes things. He picks up on things real quickly. You can tell he’s got a lot of passion for the game. He really sets the tone for our defense.”

At 6-1 and 236 pounds, Kelsey is a better at rushing the passer than Burgess but needs to improve in pass coverage. Kelsey did not intercept any passes, but did contribute six sacks while recovering one fumble. Neither player backs away from collisions or expectations.

“We talk about it all the time as a defensive group,” Burgess said. “That’s our goal as a defensive group to be number one in the country.”

Copyright 2015 WDRB News. All Rights Reserved.

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