Strong hopes corners develop quickly

Charlie Strong expects Louisville's defense to be the strength of his team, if the Cards' inexperienced cornerbacks develop quickly in the secondary.

Charlie Strong expects his defense to be Louisville's strength this season.

The Cardinals have a deep and talented defensive line, led by returning starters Greg Scruggs, Brandon Dunn and B.J. Butler, solid linebackers in Dexter Heyman, Daniel Brown and Preston Brown and two returning starters at safety, including Big East Freshman of the Year Hakeem Smith.

Andrew Johnson
That sounds like the makings of another outstanding defense for the Cardinals, who finished the 2010 season ranked among the nation's Top 20 defensive teams.

There's just one small problem. Strong and defensive coordinator Vance Bedford have no idea who will man the cornerback positions now that Johnny Patrick, who led Louisville with five interceptions last season, and Bobby Burns are gone.

"Our biggest question marks are the corners," Bedford said. "We only had nine interceptions last year and Johnny Patrick had five of the nine. We have major concerns at the cornerback spot."

Strong prefers an aggressive, attacking defense. He likes to blitz, and he believes in playing his corners man-to-man on opposing wide receivers. The question this season is whether the Cardinals have the personnel at corner to play Strong's aggressive style?

"We're a pressure defense and we're not going to back down," Strong said. "We're always going to play man coverage and pressure people.

"We have to find two corners who can step up and play. There are a lot of names there. Now, in camp, it's all about can we develop those players and get them ready to play?"

Charles Gaines
Senior Anthony Conner and redshirt freshman Jordan Paschal ended spring practice as the starting corners and after the first week of fall camp still hold the edge over true freshmen Charles Gaines, who was moved from wide receiver during spring drills, and Andrew Johnson, though Bedford noted on Media Day last week that, "Johnson is doing a tremendous job."

Still, Louisville lacks game experience at corner, regardless who eventually earns starting jobs. Conner, a junior college transfer, played two years ago, but missed last season with a knee injury. Paschal, Johnson and Gaines have never played a collegiate snap. That has Bedford searching for ways to disguise their inexperience.

"We have to find a way to protect our corners," Bedford said. "If we had to go out there and play tomorrow I don't know if we could stop anybody because we're young…..cornerback. All I can promise come the first game is they're going to play hard."

After Louisville's first three games last season, Strong and Bedford decided to gamble and blitz opponents frequently. That gamble paid off as Louisville held nine opponents to 300 yards or less. This season, Bedford hopes to force opposing offenses to attack Louisville's strength up the middle, forcing them away from Louisville's inexperienced corners.

"We've got to play more zone and two deep (coverage) than we did last year," Bedford said. "We've got to disguise some stuff and protect the guys on the boundary. We've got to find a way to protect our corners."

Safeties Hakeem Smith, who led Louisville with 88 tackles last season, and Shenard Holton should be able to help Conner, Paschal, Johnson and Gaines while they gain experience and confidence.

"We thought he (Smith) was going to be a special team's player," Bedford said. "He played a lot last year and made a few All-Conference teams. Right now he's playing extremely well for us.

"(And) Shenard is doing an outstanding job," Bedford said. "He has made tremendous progress from last season, where he struggled. He's turned it up a notch in camp and looks better than at any time last season."

Smith, a sophomore, hopes to provide experienced leadership in the secondary this season. He understands Louisville's inexperienced corners will have a learning curve this season, just like he did last year.

"Establishing myself as a leader and help us be a great defense like we were last year are my goals," Smith said. "I'm much more comfortable on the field. I'm able to recognize the offense clearly. Last year, I didn't fully understand offenses. I used to think a lot last year. Now, Coach Bedford has coached me up and I just go play."

Smith believes he and Holton will be able to help the cornerbacks grow up quickly.

"They're doing pretty well," Smith said. "We've got a lot of freshmen who are ready to contribute."

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