Strong medicine: With arrival of head coach Strong, UL defense evolves into one of Big East’s best
Doug Beaumont knew from the very first team meeting of the year that new head coach Charlie Strong was ready to turn around a sagging Louisville program.
Before spring practices started, before he had gotten to know his players, Strong sent his team a message in that first meeting. A message that the senior wide receiver Beaumont said was not delivered in the kindest of tones. It was a message, Beaumont said, that showed the Louisville football team that Strong was there to turn things around.
He demanded respect from his players. And he got it immediately.
‘He told us from the get-go what he’s expecting, what he’s going to do,’ Beaumont said. ‘And it showed us that it’s not time to play around no more, and we just have to respect him. He got his trust right away. And from then on, he kept his trust.
‘My first impression was he was the real deal.’
Strong has eased off that intensity slightly as he has built a rapport with his players. But come Saturdays, the passion works its way back into the first-year head coach’s demeanor. As the former Florida defensive coordinator, he was brought to Louisville to improve that side of the football, where the Cardinals (4-4, 1-2 Big East) finished 65th in the nation last year. And that improvement has already emerged in Louisville’s play this year.
Strong and the Cardinals’ No. 22-ranked defense will be on display when they take on Syracuse (6-2, 3-1) Saturday at noon in the Carrier Dome.
‘It’s a big turnaround, you can just tell,’ Beaumont said. ‘The defense is more motivated to get to the ball fast, play hard. … They have great execution planned from Coach Strong and the defensive staff.’
Just a year ago, Louisville struggled to keep teams out of the end zone, a major contributor to its 4-8 season. The defense allowed 26.3 points per game, a number that bumped up to 32.5 per game in the Cardinals’ eight losses. Their pass rush mustered just 23 sacks through those 12 games, and the run defense ranked No. 84 in the country.
He served as Florida’s defensive coordinator from 2003 to 2009 and won two national championships with the Gators. After accepting the new position at Louisville, he completely revamped the entire coaching staff — offense included. He brought Vance Bedford with him from Florida to serve as defensive coordinator and added position coaches from all over the country on both sides of the ball.
With all the changes have come improvements, especially in Strong’s area of expertise. The defense has shaved a full touchdown off its points-allowed average from a year ago. It already has 20 sacks through its first eight games, and its pass defense ranks No. 13 in the nation. The Cardinals have even pitched two shutouts already this year in wins against Memphis and Connecticut.
Strong said it starts with defensive line play.
‘It’s important that you play well up front,’ he said. ‘Especially on the defensive front, because if you can’t stop anybody from running the ball, then you don’t even get a chance to rush the passer. So it’s critical that we get going there, that we play very well up front.’
But what makes Strong different from other coaches is not his talent with X’s and O’s. Florida head coach Urban Meyer, who Strong served under while with the Gators, said last offseason that it was his skills off the field that separate him from others.
‘A lot of times, you may not be the best schematic coach, which I think (Strong is) very good,’ Meyer told reporters. ‘But the thing that makes Charlie such a special guy is the fact that he has impeccable character and is a great leader.’
The Cardinal players have taken notice of their coach’s intangibles as well. Beaumont said the coach can command respect and express his passion one day, like he did in that first team meeting, but can also keep things light-hearted. He has maintained trust and respect from his players by developing relationships with them. He jokes around and laughs with the team when appropriate.
But he also comes down on them when he needs to, as he did by benching defensive end Rodney Gnat for the Cardinals’ opening day loss to Kentucky. Strong said the senior didn’t practice well leading up to the game, resulting in his benching. Gnat responded by tallying seven tackles and 4.5 sacks the next week in Louisville’s 23-13 win over Eastern Kentucky. He currently ranks fourth in the Big East with 6.5 sacks on the year.
‘I just think he’s a players’ coach,’ Beaumont said. ‘He can joke around with us. He can fool around with us. He’s a coach that knows how to lead. He has a fun time but, at the same time, knows it’s business and knows that we have to be serious on the game field.
‘And that’s what he’s good at.’
Strong has already initiated the turnaround he was hired to produce. He does delve into the offense to make sure it is prepared for Saturdays, but his heart lies with the defense, where he has already left a mark.
He has said he wants to change the mindset of the program. Louisville went to a BCS bowl as recently as 2006 before stumbling to a 15-21 record over the past three years. He sent the message to his team that it was time for a change in that first team meeting.
And as Strong’s era has gotten underway, so too has the turnaround for Louisville football.
‘When you look at it, it’s a program that four years ago went to the Orange Bowl,’ Strong said. ‘It hasn’t been to a bowl game in the last three years, so it’s just change the overall attitude of this football team. You had to get them to believe that they can go play. Get them to believe that they can win.’
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