As I stood along the back of the end zone at the UPMC Rooney Sports Complex Thursday morning, I was trying to get an accurate count of the ‘takeaway’ stickers on the helmets of players in blue pinnies.
Three for Cruce Brookins, nice. Shayne Simon with three? Very nice. 38 with… four? Kyle Louis? And honestly, it might’ve been five. There were a bunch of stickers stickers slapped all over his helmet. That’s very nice.
Louis, a second-year linebacker from East Orange High in New Jersey, didn’t get a chance to show much last season. He wasn’t on the field much last season. He also admitted that he didn’t take care of his body perhaps the way he should have last season, and as he sat on the sidelines through stretches last season and into the spring, it sort of changed how he’s approaching life as a linebacker at Pitt.
It may be the first time a lot of people are hearing about Louis, but he’s made the most of his reps in a return to the football field.
“Kyle’s done a nice job,” Pat Narduzzi said earlier this week. “He’s had a good camp. He didn’t have a good spring ball. I don’t know if you remember that because he got hurt playing basketball. I always tease him about that.
“But he’s had a good camp. He’s going to play a lot of football for us this year.”
I’ll admit that I didn’t know what the 2023 season held for Louis, but after his performance this summer, I think it’s clear Pitt has another contributor in the linebacking corps. He isn’t the biggest guy at 5-foot-11, but he’s a very sturdy 220 pounds. And he moves well enough to play either of Pitt’s outside linebacker spots.
He’s spent a lot of time at Star right now, competing with Braylan Lovelace for a spot in the rotation, but like all the outside ‘backers in the system, he’s been cross-trained to the point that the coaching staff trusts him at either spot. And it’s not out of the question that he reps at Mike either.
“They compare me mostly to (SirVocea Dennis), I ain’t ever really thought about playing Mike, but I’d try it out,” Louis said earlier this month. “Usually, the freshmen come in and play Star and then you can switch to Money from Star, and right now I’m getting a lot of reps at Money.”
If you ask Louis, Dennis had the best film in the room last season, without question. Whether it was the instincts, the run tactics, the evasion. His leadership was unmatched. But maybe most importantly to Louis, Dennis was someone that Louis always felt comfortable going to for advice.
“I messed up a lot my freshman year,” Louis said after Tuesday’s practice. “Anything wrong, you can probably name it, and he was always the first person that — he showed me the way. He made sure I kept my head up, he made sure I was doing this and doing that. I just remember I was his roommate most of the time we were doing travel and stuff and seeing the way he moved, the way he operated, I really just took that all in.”
You can work as hard as you want on the field, Louis learned. But if you don’t put in the kind of effort that Dennis did on and off the field, you won’t get to where you want to be. And Louis wants to be great. A great.
— Kyle Louis⁹🦈 (@K_009r) July 18, 2022
Of course, as Dennis is off with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers now, it’s harder for Louis to learn from him. But there’s still a treasure trove of wealth awaiting Louis after every practice. Pitt shares its practice facility with the Pittsburgh Steelers. So, usually, when Pitt is wrapping up, the Steelers are just getting started. And that’s exactly the kind of great that Louis aspires to be.
Ryan Manlac grabs the linebackers after practice, and the unit as a whole parks itself next to the practice field, filling up the metal benches that line the wall outside the Aaron Donald Football Performance Center. Louis is unable to look away most of the time, studying the Steelers linebackers. The rips and cuts and slashes. It’s awe-inspiring. So much so that Louis said Pitt’s linebacker took those drills for their own.
“So, we’re doing what the professionals are doing, literally seeing it in person and applying it to our own field,” Louis said. “And then we’d watch them do their NFL team periods, just going full speed, but not thudding or trying to hurt each, and it helped us gain a new perspective of professionalism.”
Professionalism. It’s how Louis has approached his work on and off the field this summer. He understands there may be those who doubt Pitt’s linebacking corps without Dennis at the heart of the defense, but he’s seen his teammates step up all around him — and he’s certainly someone who has stepped up, too. He wouldn’t be expected to play major snaps if he hadn’t.
It’s not always easy being a linebacker in Pitt’s defensive scheme, with a rigid sense of responsibility when it comes to stopping the run. Those run fits, with perfect positioning and lightning-quick processing, are pivotal. The run defense is largely what won the blue practice pinnies back to the defensive side of the football.
And while Louis has really only stuffed the run against Pitt’s offense, he’s succeeded, and it all comes down to trust.
“Just trusting the system, trusting the linebacker left of you, trusting the linebacker to the right, trusting the safeties were going to fill the hole,” Louis said. “So, our defense is based on playing fast. Once you shoot the gap, if I go right, you gotta trust that he goes left. If I get the dink, you gotta trust that somebody protects the c-gap, and that’s what I feel like we did this scrimmage.”
Pitt’s linebackers play fast and aggressive. And when a linebacker plays hard and fast, it’s hard to see everything. Louis has worked to train his eyes up to speed. “Like, if you see a pull, even though you’re going full speed that way, you’ve gotta have great change of direction. … you just gotta be hungry. As long as you’re hungry, you’re gonna get there, that’s all that it is.” It sounds simple, but it’s much easier said than done.
But now that Louis is healthy, moving well with 220 pounds of muscle and right in the mix of the linebacking rotation, he’s happy to show that he can slow it down and make those plays that he made all throughout the summer. Four or five turnover stickers don’t just happen.
“I’m very excited,” Louis said. “I’m trying to see what’s gonna happen this season. I just can’t wait for it to come here sooner.”