- Brian Bennett, ESPN Staff Writer
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In a Louisville meeting earlier this season, seniors were asked to tell the freshmen their stories and how their careers had gone. Defensive end Rodney Gnat began to realize then that his time was almost up.
"I started wondering what people would think about me when they went back and looked at past media guides," he said.
The story on Gnat heading into 2010 was relatively uneventful. He never recorded more than 10 tackles in a season. He owned all of three career sacks.
But when Charlie Strong took over the Cardinals in January, he saw Gnat as one of the few guys on the defensive line who wouldn't have looked out of place at Strong's previous school, Florida. He started calling the 6-foot-3, 253-pounder "Big Pretty," as in a player who looked the part but hadn't delivered. He demanded change.
"I had the ability to make plays; I was just never consistent," said Gnat, whom Bobby Petrino recruited out of Jacksonville, Fla. "Coach Strong told a few of us in the spring that if we wanted to have a good season, that depended on a handful of guys like me. He called me out."
If Gnat didn't get the message then, Strong sent him another one in the first week of the season. Unhappy with how Gnat was practicing leading up to the opener, Strong did not play him against Kentucky. Gnat called it "a wake-up call."
"I really challenged him at the beginning of the season," Strong said. "Since then, Rodney has responded very well."
The next week against Eastern Kentucky, Gnat had four sacks. After five games, he's leading the Big East with 6.5 sacks.
He's also leading a vastly improved Cardinals pass rush. Louisville finished last in the league in sacks the last two years, recording only 14 in 2008 and 23 in 2009. This year, it is tied for the Big East lead with 18. While not all of that can be credited to the defensive line, Strong praises defensive line coach Clint Hurtt for boosting an undersized and heretofore underachieving group up front.
The leaps and bounds that defensive line has made since the spring, when the coaches looked ready to pull their hair out in practice, has been startling.
"They're working hard, and their technique has improved every single week," Hurtt said. "The biggest thing is understanding down and distances and pre-snap tips that let you know a lot of times what's going down. We give them a lot of information, and they didn't pay attention to so many things before. Now that they see it, they're starting to enjoy rushing the passer and looking for it more and more."
Every good defensive line needs a standout rush end, and Gnat is filling that role. Hurtt says he is particularly tough on Gnat and chews him out for every little mistake.
"I'm like that with him because he's a very talented guy," Hurtt said. "He was allowed for the last four years here to just be who he is. I'm not going to accept that. I expect more out of him, and I demand more out of him. Even though he may be leading the Big East in sacks, he's nowhere near where I want him to be."
Gnat has always been blessed with the ability to get upfield quickly after the snap. But he said he's focusing more on things like footwork, how to use his hands and film work.
"One of the things that led to me being inconsistent during my career here is not paying attention to details," he said. "I'm using little tips that the offense gives us. Just things like knowing down and distance, that if it's second and long there will probably be a screen pass or draw, and if it's third and long I can obviously pin my ears back and get after the quarterback."
Louisville's defensive line will have possibly its biggest challenge of the season Friday night against Cincinnati. The Bearcats have given up more sacks than any Big East team, but most of those came early in the season before they made changes on their offensive line. Since then, they've gotten back to playing at a high tempo and moving the ball up and down the field.
"We have to start off fast," Gnat said. "Their quarterback killed us last year, and [Isaiah] Pead is a special running back who can gash you at any time. But if we start fast and play like we did against Memphis, then I think the sky is the limit."
The same can be said for Gnat. Before this season, he was little more than a footnote in Louisville football history. He's trying to make his mark before he's done.
"Hopefully people will remember my name one day," he said