In his first season at UofL, Charlie Strong unexpectedly delivered a winning season and a bowl championship. Now, he's focused on delivering the first Top 25 recruiting class in Louisville history. Though it isn't signed, sealed and delivered just yet, Strong's first full recruiting class – at least on paper – appears the best in school history.
Strong's 2011 recruiting haul received a major shot in the arm this weekend, rising from No. 26 to No. 18 in the Scout.com rankings, when Miami prep standouts Gerod Holliman and Andrew Johnson verbally committed to play for Louisville next season.
It isn't often Louisville finds itself ahead of national powers Florida, Tennessee, Nebraska, Virginia Tech and Michigan in the recruiting rankings. But that's the position Strong's Cardinals find themselves less than a month before national signing day.
Though Holliman was the Cardinals biggest catch this weekend, Johnson, a three-star prospect who was recruited by Ole Miss, West Virginia and Miami, was also a significant addition to Strong's recruiting class.
Strong and his staff, particularly assistant Clint Hurtt, who recruits the Miami-area for the Cards, have done a remarkable job on the recruiting trail. Louisville – by far – has the best recruiting class in the Big East. Cincinnati's recruiting class ranks second in the Big East, but is 20 spots lower in the national rankings than the Cardinals. Louisville has the Big East's only five-star prospect (Miami quarterback Teddy Bridgewater), and the Cards also have more four-star (2) and three-star (17) recruits than any other team in the league.
What separates Louisville's class from their counterparts in the Big East is star-power. Three Louisville recruits – Bridgewater, Holliman and Eli Rogers – are all ranked in the ESPNU Top 150, a list of the nation's best prospects. No other Big East program has a recruit on that exclusive recruiting list.
Shortly after arriving at Louisville, Strong was determined to take back the city of Louisville. Under Steve Kragthorpe, the Cardinals didn't keep local talent at home, watching several highly rated prospects head to rival Kentucky or out of state for college. Strong put an end to that, securing early commitments from the city's most promising prospects, including Seneca quarterback DaMarcus Smith, Ballard wideout DeVante Parker, and Fern Creek standouts Jamon Brown, Jerrell Moore and Jalen Harrington.
Once he secured his home turf, Strong returned to his old stomping grounds in talent-rich Florida, which annually produces more than 300 Division 1 football prospects. 11 of Louisville's 24 commitments hail from the Sunshine State, including the past eight commitments.
Louisville moved the needle nationally last month when Teddy Bridgewater, the No. 3-rated quarterback prospect nationally, spurned hometown Miami to play for Charlie Strong. Bridgewater, who led the East team to a 13-10 comeback win Saturday in the U.S. Army All-American Bowl, will enroll at Louisville this semester and will battle local star DaMarcus Smith for the starting quarterback job.
Strong also wanted to improve his program's speed, and his Florida recruits will provide a significant upgrade in that department. 8 of Louisville's 11 Florida commits run the forty yard dash in 4.5 seconds or better. Louisville might not have been the fastest team in the Big East during Strong's first season, but that is changing – quickly.
Strong's current recruiting class will boost the talent-level at virtually every position on Louisville's roster, especially at quarterback and in the secondary. In Bridgewater and Smith, Louisville has the second-best quarterback class in the nation behind only Nebraska. And with one four-star prospect (Holliman) and seven three-star commits, Louisville's defensive back class also ranks second-best nationally behind Texas.
Strong's class also upgrades his team's talent at wide receiver and on the offensive line. DeVante Parker, a four-star prospect, is one of the top wide receivers in the nation. He figures to be an immediate contributor for the Cardinals. So do Under Armour All-American wide receiver Eli Rogers, and Miami Central star Charles Gaines. Up front, offensive guard John Miller, and offensive tackles Ryan Mack and Aaron Epps are all three-star prospects. Mike Romano, an under-rated recruit from Florida, is viewed as Louisville's center of the future.
With the Feb. 2 national signing day rapidly approaching, Strong's program will focus their remaining recruiting efforts this weekend, when they host several of their top remaining recruiting targets on official visits. That group is expected to include Kaleb Johnson, a three-star offensive lineman from Jacksonville, Fla., Spencer Region, a three-star offensive guard from Cullman, Ala., B.J. Dubose, a three-star defensive end from Miami, Fla., Jon Davis, a four-star tight end committed to Kentucky, and Andrew Buie, a three-star running back from Jacksonville, Fla.
If Strong can add a few of those prospects, Louisville's recruiting class surely would be headed into uncharted territory.