By Howie Lindsey
Sirmon’s ‘simple’ defense might be what the Dr. ordered for Louisville
WHAT’S THE OLD PHRASE? KISS: KEEP IT SIMPLE, STUPID?
Well, for Louisville football, the defense might co-opt that acronym: KISS: Keep It Simple, Sirmon.
Louisville coach Bobby Petrino made a change in his defensive coordinator at the end of the 2016 season to bring in Peter Sirmon. Part of Petrino’s charge to Sirmon was to revamp Louisville’s defensive efforts for the 2017 season.
And how did Sirmon plan to improve Louisville’s defense? By keeping it simple.
Some of the key phrases Sirmon heard when talking with defensive players at Louisville when he arrived were “complicated” and “confusing.” That’s not what you want to hear from a defensive group tasked with stopping an offense.
While all college football defenses are more complex than just “See ball, get ball,” the UofL defense seemed to be suffering a bit from overthink on the part of former defensive coordinator Todd Grantham (now at Mississippi State).
“I want to take pride in keeping it simple,” Sirmon told reporters back in the spring.
He has, and the players seem to be responding well.
“It’s not that much different, but the words are different, easier to understand,” senior defensive lineman Drew Bailey said.
“The vocabulary is brought down so we can get the plays quicker,” said senior linebacker Stacy Thomas. “We had a couple games where they would run hurry-up, and then we would have trouble getting the call and then echoing it to everybody, so that was an issue last year.”
“I want it to be player-friendly,” Sirmon said. “I’m not so sure if simple is better or complex is better. I don’t know if it is better or worse. What I know is my job is to develop that locker room and find the best combination of players to get on the field. It was probably 18 to 20 years ago when free agency started hitting and getting wild in the NFL, and it was at that time that you saw defensive coordinators start to simplify their concepts because the owners needed to see the new players come in and play immediately. In the 70s and 80s you had teams that had players for eight to 11 years and they grew up in a system. There wasn’t a lot of movement team to team within the league.
“The same thing happened, in my mind, in college football. The better you recruit and the more talent you get on a young roster, how do you turn that talent into production?”
Linebackers coach Cort Dennison, who coached under both Grantham and now Sirmon, explained it this way: “We want to have one meaning for each signal, not multiple words for any particular defense. We want to get the call in and make it as easy as we can for our guys to play fast.”
So the need for simplicity seemed to be clear, but what does Sirmon’s “simple” defense look like? Well, that’s a little more complicated.
Louisville lined up in a base 3-4 defense for most of the Grantham tenure. Sirmon sparked debate and intrigue when the 2017 media guide was released and showed Louisville’s base defense in a 4-3 scheme. He used both – and more –during his time at Mississippi State, and Louisville has even been practicing 4-2-5 and other pass-heavy defenses during Fall Camp in preparation for some pass-heavy opponents.
“I like to be the toughest group of guys out there,” Sirmon said when asked how he wants his defense to play. “I think there is toughness that intrisically in us and there is some toughness that is developed and I think there is some toughness when 11 guys choose to play together. I think the tough guys can pull some guys along with them. We talk a lot on defense about the terms team, we and us. Team, we and us is the slide that we begin every meeting with and that is about the 40-50 guys we are working with and the coaches supporting the 11 guys on the field at that particular time.”
Sirmon’s pedigree in the NFL gives him a certain weight that makes the players take notice.
After a strong career at Oregon, Sirmon was drafted in 2000 by the Tennessee Titans and played seven seasons as a linebacker in the NFL.
“As with most athletes, I got old,” said Sirmon. “I hit 30 and got older, and then I took a year off after the NFL and did some broadcasting with the Titans. Then, I coached at Central Washington, and the coaching bug bit me. I didn’t really plan on going into coaching, but it bit me, and I’ve been a coach ever since.”
Sirmon is one of the hottest names in college football. He broke into coaching at Central Washington in 2008 and then Oregon as a GA in 2009, followed by stops at Tennessee (2010-11), Washington (2012-13), USC (2014-15) and Mississippi State (2016) before coming to Louisville.
“You know he understands what it takes to play defense at the highest level,” Dennison said when asked why Sirmon seems to be such a hot commodity in the coaching ranks. “It is great to get to work alongside him, and our entire defensive staff is strong with ‘LD’ and ‘Whammy,’ too.”
Whammy is Lorenzo Ward, the veteran defensive backs coach from South Carolina who was hired after the bowl game to help Louisville’s secondary reach its potential. LD, is former Louisville defensive lineman L.D. Scott, who has been Louisville’s defensive line coach since Petrinoreturned to Louisville.
Sirmon and the new coaching staff on defense will be tested early and often. Louisville’s schedule is packed with dynamic offenses that include two of the last four national champions in Clemson and Florida State and some of the top offensive coordinators in the country.