Strong, who won two BCS titles as defensive coordinator at Florida, hopes to build on last season's success – the Cardinals won seven games, including the Beef O'Brady's Bowl - with a young team that lost 25 seniors and features 21 redshirt or true freshmen in the two-deep.
Since arriving at Louisville, Strong has restored excitement to the lackluster program he inherited from Kragthorpe. Among Strong's chief accomplishments:
- Returning UofL to the post-season for the first time since 2006;
- Significantly improved recruiting, including a 2011 class that ranked among the Top 25 nationally;
- Improved attendance, evident by the fact that Louisville led the nation in increased attendance during Strong's initial season;
- Improved team academic performance
"Everybody is excited about this program," Strong said. "We want to get this program back to where it was and it has to be with recruiting. We have an outstanding coaching staff. The key is our relationship with the players and all the coaches have a great relationship with their players. When kids know you care about them they're going to work for you."
After winning the Big East championship in Bobby Petrino's final campaign, Louisville struggled to keep pace with league members under Kragthorpe, winning just two Big East games in 2008 and 2009. Strong quickly made the Cardinals competitive in the league in his first season, winning three Big East games, while dropping three others by a touchdown or less.
"We want to build consistency in our program and keep going to bowl games and eventually we want to win the Big East championship," Strong said. "Our players understand the steps we have to take (to achieve those goals)."
Strong, tabbed Athlon Magazines best new coaching hire for the 2010 season, led the biggest turnaround in college football last year by a first year coach, improving the Cardinals record by three wins. That was better than Florida State's Jimbo Fisher, Notre Dame's Brian Kelly and Kentucky's Joker Phillips.
Despite his quick success as a first-year head coach, Strong says he learned on the job last season. Entering his second season, Strong believes he's a better coach now than he was last season, a sentiment echoed by defensive coordinator Vance Bedford.
"I'm better at handling issues and dealing with the whole team," Strong said. "But I'm still learning…you learn every year."
After suffering through three non-winning campaigns, last season's success provided a confidence boost for Strong's returning players. With Strong in charge, there's no chance complacency will become an issue for the Cards.
"It was a definite moral boost," senior linebacker Dexter Heyman said. "One thing you don't want to do is get complacent. You don't want to get caught up in success. We have to recreate that sense of urgency and sustain that for 12 games in order to get back to that level."
The obvious challenge for Strong is figuring out how to keep Louisville moving forward this season with a roster full of young, inexperienced players. The Cardinals will open the season Thursday against Murray State with five new starters on the offensive line, a first-year starting quarterback in Will Stein, and two new cornerbacks.
On offense, Strong wants to attack. He prefers the same attacking style on defense, hoping to always keep the pressure on the opponent. That style offers an exciting brand of football featuring a wide open offense with a powerful running attack, and a defense that constantly blitzes the opposition to keep them off balance.
"We want to dictate the flow of the game," Strong said.
Last season, 10 true freshmen saw action for Louisville, and a few of those guys will crack the starting lineup against Murray State. With only seven senior starters, Strong's talented freshmen class figures to get ample opportunity to make contributions this season. Seven true freshmen are listed in the two-deep, though more could see action early in the season.
"We're a very young, talented football team," Strong said. "There's a lot of work to be done and we're nowhere near where we need to be. For this program to get back to where it was, and we're going to get it back to where it was, we have to get the players in here."
There's no question Strong is luring talented players to Louisville. Freshmen Teddy Bridgewater, DeVante Parker, Eli Rogers, John Miller Corvin Lamb, B.J. Dubose, Andrew Johnson and Calvin Pryor made quick impressions during camp. If their performance in the weight room, during preseason camp and in the classroom this summer – Strong's newcomers finished summer school with a collective 3.2 grade point average – is an indication, the future is bright for Louisville football.
"The players know how to work and they know what we expect out of them," Strong said. "Players want to be great, it's just pushing them and letting them know how good they can be. We have to take it to the next level and get this program back where it needs to be."
The next step in that process begins Thursday night against Murray State at Papa John's Cardinal Stadium.