EXCLUSIVE: In-depth interview with Charlie Strong

Over the last three years, the Florida Gators have had three different defensive coordinators. Charlie Strong took over for the departed John Thompson and put together a group of his own. While it wasn't the stingiest of defenses, last year's version created some turnovers. Led by a secondary on which all the starters were seniors, the Gators were a little depth shy and very young up the middle of the defense.

Coach Strong took some time to talk to us a little about last year and his expectations for the upcoming season.

Q: Coach Strong, can you tell us where you thought the defense did well last year?

A: One of the things we did well last year was create turnovers. From an effort standpoint, we played hard. But we gave up too many big plays. But getting turnovers and scoring on defense is a couple of things we did well.

Q: How about a little bit of what we could have done better?

A: Well, defensively any time we get ahead in a game we have to be able to hold a lead and the thing we didn't do was when we got ahead we didn't go out and finish the game. We just didn't have the consistency to finish and that consistency at the end of the game was why we gave up so many big plays. Just finishing the game and 3rd down plays is something we have to get better at.

Q: Some of our readers complained about the Miami game. What should we have done different?

A: You look back at the Miami game, we probably should have backed off and we didn't then they wouldn't have hit us on the 60 something yarder. Then we get them to 3rd down and try to undercut a receiver and they end up throwing the ball over our head. I just think that whenever we do get in a game like that we have to continue to be aggressive and have to come up and find a way to stop them and that's what we didn't do. We didn't stop them and we got them into the 3rd down situations and we just didn't get off the football field.

Q: No right minded Gator fan thinks we lost the FSU game. However, we had a chance to win at the end and we gave up a long play on 4th and 14 that would have sealed the game. Would you do anything different?

A: That was just another critical mistake of just not being in position to make the play. You can sit here and say we should have blitzed on that play but if you blitz and they get the first down, people say we shouldn't have blitzed. You could look at it a whole bunch of different ways and there are a lot of things we could have said that we should have done different. We should have just come up and make the play and get off the field.

Q: We have a young squad but somewhat experienced compared to last year's group. What did you see out of your defensive troops in the spring?

A: I think the players are better up front. Marcus Thomas and Ray McDonald? are a year older. You add Jeremy Mincey to the mix and getting Joe Cohen from offense. Channing Crowder is a much better football player. Earl Everett is a lot bigger. Moving Travis Harris is going to help us. We have to get better in the secondary. We are going to be athletic in the secondary, but we are going to be young. Dee Webb and Reynaldo have a lot of ability and Corey Bailey and Jarvis are vets that have played a lot. Overall, they understand we have to be consistent we have to tackle and we just can't give up the big plays back there.

Q: With all of the losses in the secondary, do you project to do anything different this season?

A: I just think we always have to be smart about what we do on defense. You lose your secondary but you are better up front and that is where your games are won -- up front. I know we lose key guys like Guss Scott who was a good football player for us, Keiwan, Darryl Dixon, and Johnny Lamar. A year ago, we were wondering who was going to start at the corner spot. We took Keiwan and moved him to offense last spring, and we were trying to figure out who were going to be both starting corners. Now, you have a situation where you do know going in that Dee Webb and Reynaldo will probably start with Vernell Brown really pushing for a starting corner spot. Your safeties are pretty set with Corey Bailey and Jarvis Herring. We are just in a situation where we have to be smart and we can't allow our secondary to have to cover for a long time, but we feel like we should be able to get enough pressure from our front.

Q: Is the plan to blitz more?

A: We want to be aggressive. Game by game is going to determine how much we blitz, if we can cover people we are going to blitz more.

Q: The Gators lose two starting defensive ends in Darrel Lee and Bobby McCray?. What do you expect out of your new group?

A: With Joe Cohen, Jeremy Mincey, Tree Morant, Jarvis Moss, and Stephen Harris, you are looking at 5 solid defensive ends. The thing we like about Jeremy is his motor is always going -- he is one of those guy that when you put him out there you are going to feel him, just his presence and how hard he plays. Joe Cohen is strong and so athletic being a fullback last year. He is just so physical. You will be able to feel Joe because of the power he has. He isn't height-wise a Kevin Carter, but he has that type of power that Kevin Carter has. Then with Tree Morant and Jarvis Moss, Moss is a quicker version of Tree but Tree can make plays and he is tall. We just like the way these guys work and their effort. Stephen Harris is another guy that played for us last year that we expect something from up front.

Q: So are we just talking about the 5 guys helping?

A: Well, you would always like to find someone else, maybe a Derrick Harvey or whoever that can get in the mix, because if we can find 6 that just helps us with our rotation.

Q: On the rotation -- are you planning on trying to keep the guys fresh?

A: Yeah, if you think about last season and you look inside. We didn't have any tackles, we were counting on Ray (McDonald?) who at the time probably weighed 260(lbs). Marcus Thomas was a true freshman. Mo Mitchell was moved over from offense. Kenny Parker was battling the injury bug. And we only had two known quantities at defensive end in Lee and McCray?. When you look at us this year, we want to get two teams going, we want to alternate and keep people fresh and I think that is what happens when you are a good defensive team. You are able to rotate and keep people fresh and that is what we want to be able to do.

Some want to ride Coach Strong for last season. It is amazing the mix and match this team had to do at the defensive tackle and linebacker positions last year. The Gators started out the year with zero proven quantities at defensive tackle. They ended the year with two freshmen as their best linebackers and best defensive tackles. This year those players are sophomores with a year of experience. In talking with Coach Strong all the times I have, he would love to be able to line up in the front and just beat the other team without blitzing. Most games are won up front and the Gators should be much better than last year. At the same time, the inexperience in the secondary means the front is going to have to carry the burden almost exclusively. Coach Strong knows the key to this season on defense will be pressure. Whether we get it from 4 or more will go a long way in dictating our success.

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