JACKSONVILLE, Fla. (WDRB) – This is the way the college game is played – or not played – in 2017. If you’re a coach, you work to get to a bowl game, then wait to see which players who helped get you there will take part in it.

I’m not going to say that bowl games are meaningless. For college athletes and fans, every time they play has meaning. But when the University of Louisville football team lost cornerback Jaire Alexander, who announced he would forego the game to focus on his upcoming bid at the NFL Draft, and James Hearns, who says he wants to give his body some rest before the Draft, it further illustrated the disposable nature of bowl games in the playoff era, and put defensive coordinator in scramble mode as the Cardinals prepare for Saturday’s TaxSlayer Bowl matchup against Mississippi State.

All of the speculation had been on the offense potentially being without quarterback Lamar Jackson. Instead, the defense will be without two key players just as it turned the corner.

Sirmon’s unit, largely behind the return of Alexander from a freak ankle injury he sustained in the first game of the season, gave up just 312 yards per game in November, 15th best in the nation. They were also tied for 10th nationally in scoring defense in the month of November, giving up 16 points per game, and in the same month they ranked 11th in the nation against the past.

It’s only natural that Sirmon would want to keep that going.

“Sports is all about momentum, and when you have it, you don’t want to turn it loose,” he said, speaking with reporters after practice Wednesday at Fernandina Beach High School outside Jacksonville, Fla..

Yet he had to turn loose Alexander and Hearns, and considering where the defense was in September and October, while Alexander was out, that’s a scary thought.

“That’s college football right now, and I want to be supportive of the players right now, that we have,” Sirmon said. “And if they feel that’s in their best interests, I wish them nothing but success, and hopefully they achieve all the things that they hope this decision will achieve. It’s a challenge. It’s a challenge when you get the news. Obviously you’d rather get it early in the bowl preparation than later.”

With Hearns, Louisville is hurt mainly in the depth department. Jonathan Greenard and Trevon Young are more than capable of picking up the slack, but it’s nice to have another talented body in the rotation.

Alexander is not so simple. He covered the field. He seemed to be around every tackle. He had a knack for showing up on key plays or in big situations.

Russ Yeast, a freshman, saw plenty of time in his spot to start the year, and he was picked on at times. This provides him a chance to show that he’s grown into the position.

Drew Bailey, a senior defensive lineman for whom the bowl game is a homecoming, wouldn’t miss it for the world. He said he’s already on the hook for at least 18 tickets for friends and family members, and that more call every day.

He grew up about 10 minutes from EverBank Stadium, and says he’s excited about his last college game there. De’Asian Richardson, another senior lineman, said he grew up going to Jacksonville Jaguars games.

“It’s my playground,” Richardson said. “Bottom line, it’s our season. So, we’re playing to win. Everybody out here understands that there’s still money to be made.”

Bailey said, “Everybody preps differently. When Sheldon Rankings got hurt (against Wake Forest in 2015), I came in to replace him. Just whoever comes in has to do the job.”

Neither player said he considered skipping the bowl.

“Nope,” Bailey said.

“Can’t,” Richardson said. “We’re coming home. We want to win. Go out winning.”
 

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