LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) - Louisville defensive backs say replacing all-conference safeties Hakeem Smith and Calvin Pryor hasn’t been easy.
But interceptions by safeties Gerod Holliman and James Sample and cornerback Charles Gaines has helped the Cardinals make the transition.
Louisville’s secondary began the season looking to fill huge voids but enters Saturday’s Atlantic Coast Conference game against Wake Forest (2-2, 0-0) tied for fifth nationally with Central Michigan and Minnesota with seven interceptions. That’s nearly halfway to last season’s total (16), with Holliman leading the country with five interceptions.
The Cardinals also have 11 sacks and have forced a succession of young quarterbacks into mistakes in their new 3-4 defensive scheme. The pressure has helped the secondary be opportunistic while developing a rotation.
“That’s our job, to go out there and try to get the ball back,” said Louisville senior strong safety Floyd, who moved back this season after recording four interceptions at cornerback in 2013. “This defense puts us in perfect position to go out there and make plays on the ball. So, yes, we are very opportunistic.”
No one has epitomized that resourcefulness more than Holliman, a sophomore who has intercepted two passes in consecutive games and is the ACC’s Defensive Back of the Week.
A backup most of last season, Holliman has quickly blossomed into the hard-hitting playmaker that Louisville needed. The 6-foot, 206-pound Miami native showed that last weekend at Florida International with interceptions on consecutive plays, the first of which was a 32-yard pickoff return for a touchdown that jump-started Louisville (3-1, 0-1) to 21 unanswered points in its 34-3 rout.
The low-key Holliman wasn’t available for interviews this week but recently credited Smith and Pryor for teaching him the finer points of coverage and tackling.
“Really, it’s just been about communicating with my DBs, learning where each corner and safety is, watching film and learning what the offense likes to do,” Holliman said of his play. “We’re playing aggressive because we have guys backing each other up.”
Holliman in turn has passed his knowledge on to other Cardinals defenders such as Sample, a junior transfer who signed with Louisville late this spring. He debuted with eight tackles and an INT against Miami, one of two by Louisville in a game in which Holliman returned a pickoff 61 yards.
“The more he does things and sees things, he’s pretty quick to pick up on it and he’s really been able to play fast with what we’ve asked him to do,” Cardinals defensive coordinator Todd Grantham said of Holliman. “We’ve really been pleased with his progress; we just got to continue to work to put him in position that he can make those kinds of plays.”
Floyd believes that the way Louisville’s secondary is playing right now, everyone is capable of making game-changing plays. As it is, defensive backs comprise five of the top 10 tacklers on a unit that’s allowing 178.2 yards per game through the air.
And the Cardinals still have two-thirds of their season left to get better.
“I think we still need some improvement, but I’m not surprised by how well we’re playing,” Floyd said. “We’ve got a lot of talent in the secondary and I expected us to play this well. …
“I expect teams to throw away from (Holliman) unless they want picks, but that opens up the door for a lot of other guys.”
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