Strong New DirectionThere's a new direction at the University of Louisville football complex this spring.
Since replacing Steve Kragthorpe, Charlie Strong has been working non-stop remaking the Cardinals in his image. Fans should expect a better conditioned, more disciplined and focused team on the practice field this spring, a reflection of the new head coach.
"He is definitely a leader," defensive coordinator Vance Bedford said during a recent radio interview. "He is going to do an outstanding job here in Louisville."
Strong, who has surrounded himself with perhaps the best coaching staff in the league, takes a no-nonsense approach on and off the field. He is demanding and commands respect from the players.
"You're not going to find a better leader than Charlie Strong. You talk to people he's worked with from Lou Holtz to Urban Meyer they have nothing but good things to say about Charlie Strong,' Bedford said. "If you want to play for the best you come play for Louisville because we're an upcoming program with a great leader."
Strong won't play favorites this spring. He says all positions are up for grabs and he's going to give everybody a fair shot to earn a starting position.
"We're going to start with a new slate," Strong said. "There are players here and there is talent here."
Strong, in a departure from the previous coaching regime, opened all spring practices to the fans. The message he's trying to send – the fans are an important part of his program.
"I think its important to have these practices open to our fans," said Strong. "I think its also good for our players to practice in front of people, and for the fans to get a look at their football team."
Recruiting UpswingCharlie Strong has made an immediate recruiting impact for the Cardinals.
Since his arrival, Louisville signed the third-best recruiting class in the Big East, up three spots in the ranking from when he took over the program. Strong landed several studs in his first recruiting class, including former Georgia commits B.J. Butler and Deon Rogers and former Cincinnati commits Preston Brown and Dominique Brown. Those four players could all see action as true freshmen.
Strong also has a head start on the Class of 2011, landing commitments from five of Louisville's top juniors, including standout Seneca quarterback DaMarcus Smith and promising Ballard wide receiver DeVante Parker. Strong also has Louisville in the mix with several three and four-star prospects from Florida, players he says the Cardinals must pursue – and get – if they plan to compete for the BCS championship.
"You have to go head to head with Florida and USC because you're going to end up playing them," Strong said.
Strong has assembled an outstanding staff of recruiters, including recruiting coordinator Clint Hurtt. Hurtt, the former recruiting coordinator at Miami, used to cross paths with Strong on the recruiting trail and understands what makes Louisville's head man a great recruiter – hard work and persistence.
"He's a great recruiter, I know I'm a great recruiter and obviously with us joining forces we're going to be something to be reckoned with," Hurtt said recently during a local radio interview. "What I've always prided myself on, and I know Charlie does the same thing, is hitting each school [in Florida] and having so many contacts in [key] counties. Some schools will make the mistake of not doing that but there are good players at every school down there, not just the top schools. Being able to identify those guys and getting on them early you have a great head start."
Strong doesn't plan on focusing his attention only in Florida. In fact, his first four 2011 commits all are from Louisville. Recruiting Kentucky is a top priority for Strong, as are Georgia, Alabama, Indiana, Ohio, New Jersey and Virginia.
"We're going to get into Kentucky and make sure we take care of the home state," Hurtt said. "The guys in Kentucky will definitely be able to help us go and win the Big East and get back to a BCS bowl."
New Offense Taking ShapeMike Sanford, Louisville's offensive coordinator, is charged with installing a Florida-esq spread-offense this spring for the Cardinals.
The problem for Sanford is there's no Tim Tebow on Louisville's roster. Adam Froman and Justin Burke will take the majority of snaps this spring, but Louisville's eventual starter next season might not arrive on campus until this summer. Cincinnati high school sensation Dominique Brown, who Sanford recruited, could emerge as Louisville's quarterback because of his explosive athleticism and running ability.
Ideally, Sanford wants a quarterback who can spread the field with his passing and running ability, just like Tebow did while at Florida. Until he finds that player, Sanford plans to tailor the offense around his inherited personnel, which features running backs Victor Anderson, Darius Ashley and Bilal Powell. Expect a heavy dose of running from Louisville right away.
"You have to run the football because that builds toughness and you want to be able to throw it around because you're going to get a third down at some point," Strong said. "But you want to start off running the ball."
The strength of the offense figures to be the running backs and Sanford likely will try to ride that unit to an improved offense. Louisville finished at the bottom of the Big East in total and scoring offense in 2009.
"I have tremendous respect for Coach Strong and I have no doubt he will be successful at Louisville," Sanford said. "I am excited to get to work and develop an offense that is explosive, attacking and balanced."
Lack of Playmakers?Michael Bush, Harry Douglas, Mario Urrutia, Kolby Smith, Brian Brohm.
With a lack of returning offensive playmakers, especially at wide receiver, several true freshmen could see action on offense next season, including quarterback Dominique Brown, wide receiver Michaelee Harris and running back Kamal Hogan. Junior college wide out Josh Bellamy could also make a quick impact.
While the Cardinals don't have any established game-breakers returning, senior wide receiver Doug Beaumont is a solid possession-type receiver, senior tight end Cameron Graham has shown the ability to catch the ball down field, 6-8 junior wide receiver Josh Chichester presents a size mismatch for opposing corners and sophomore running back Darius Ashley made several big plays as a true freshman.
Perhaps those role players will become game-changing performers this spring.
Position SwitchesA few position changes to keep an eye on this spring:
Junior lineman Greg Scruggs, now 269-pounds, has moved to tackle from end. Scruggs played in every game last season, recording 24 tackles and two sacks.
Junior C.J. Peake has taken an unusual path at Louisville, at one point heading to junior college after Ron English left for Eastern Michigan before coming back last season. Peake, a former high school standout, hasn't made much of an impact for the Cardinals. Now listed at 240-pounds, Peake has been moved to linebacker from safety. Peake played in 11 games last year and recorded three tackles while playing mostly on special teams.
Junior Dexter Heyman started at linebacker two years ago as a true freshman but was moved to defensive end last year because he struggled with pass coverage responsibilities. He played sparingly up front last season, seeing action in nine games and making eight tackles and recovering a fumble.
Bedford Seeks Attacking DefenseCharlie Strong was one of the best defensive coordinators in the nation, devising a defensive unit that led Florida to a pair of BCS championships in the last four years.
"I'm going to be heavily involved [with the defense]," Strong said. "I feel like as a coach you have to do what you know. I'm going to stay heavily involved."
Bedford, a former defensive back coach at Florida, is very familiar with what Strong wants from his defense.
"We plan to be aggressive," Bedford said. "I want to see guys flying around. One thing we've talked about as a staff is we want to see 11 hats to the ball. If we do that we're going to have a chance to be a pretty good defense and win some games."
Louisville had one of the worst defenses in the league last year, routinely allowing more than 30 points in Big East games the past two years.
"We're going to be an attacking defense, even in our base defense we want to be aggressive," Bedford said. "We want to try to bring some pressure and make things happen for us defensively and as a team. When we go out there and try to hit people in the mouth it picks up the fans and our players."
Bedford said the plan is to fit Louisville's system around the returning players.
"We're going to try to mold the defense around the players we have to give them a chance at success," said Bedford. "Right now we're just implementing our system and we're going to try to fit the system around the players."
Though Louisville's defense didn't play well last year, Bedford thought the players played hard. There will be a lot of competition for starting positions starting with spring ball.
"I thought the guys played hard," Bedford said. "When you have guys giving great effort you have a chance to be successful. Everyone has a clean slate and a chance to be a starter. There are no starters and everybody on defense has that same opportunity. The players are excited about that."
Papa John's Stadium ExpansionFans attending spring practice will notice significant progress on construction at Papa John's Cardinal Stadium.
Expansion appears on schedule for Louisville's first home game in 2010 against Kentucky. The project, which began last year, will take seating capacity at the stadium from 42,000 to more than 56,000.
Sales of suites and loge seats, which are the main sources of funding for the expansion, reportedly are going well this spring, clear evidence that fans have been energized by the recent coaching change and the early recruiting results from Charlie Strong.
In a recent report, UofL officials said 24 of 33 new suites had been sold at $45 thousand per year. UofL also reported that 1,600 of the new loge seats had been sold, leaving just 100 or so seats in that section unsold. Officials hope to sell the remaining suites and loge seats prior to the season opener.
Construction has been progressing at a brisk pace. In mid-March, seating was being installed in the expanded deck, concrete poured in the south terrace, lattice work atop the expansion neared completion with exterior brick work in progress.
Spring Practice ScheduleThe University of Louisville football team will begin spring football practice under first-year head coach Charlie Strong when the Cardinals take the field on March 24 for the first of 15 practices.
The Cardinals hit the field on March 24 at 4:00 p.m. on the practice fields of the Howard Schnellenberger Football Complex. All the weekday (Mon., Wed., and Fri.) practices will begin at approximately 4:00 p.m., while the Cardinals will scrimmage on Saturdays at a time which has yet to be determined.
After opening practices on a Wednesday, Louisville will practice every Monday, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday during the spring. Here are the scheduled practice dates: Mar. 24, Mar. 26, Mar. 27, Mar. 29, Mar. 31, Apr. 2, Apr. 3, Apr. 5, Apr. 7, Apr. 9, Apr. 10, Apr. 12, Apr. 14, Apr. 15.
All practices are free and open to the public. Fans are encouraged to come out and get a good look at the 2010 Cardinals under Strong and the new coaching staff.
"I think its important to have these practices open to our fans," said Strong. "I think its also good for our players to practice in front of people, and for the fans to get a look at their football team. I'm very excited to see this football team take the field on March 24."
The Cardinals will conduct their Annual Red-White Game on Friday, April 16 at 7:30 p.m. in Papa John's Cardinal Stadium.