NCF Nation: Vance Bedford

Stats, sacrifices testing Texas DE Reed

October, 31, 2014
10/31/14
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AUSTIN, Texas -- After a couple games, it’s just a slow start. At midseason, a bit concerning. Three-fourths of the way through, it’s getting frustrating.

 Cedric Reed came back for his senior season at Texas to get his degree. He came back for the new coaches. He wanted a chance to leave the program in better shape. He wanted to improve on his 10 sacks as a junior. He wanted trophies and wanted to be an All-American.

The defensive end didn’t expect 1.5 sacks and five losses through eight games. He didn’t come back for that. And there’s nothing you can say about it that Reed hasn’t already thought himself.

“I beat myself up over it every night,” Reed said.

Have those senior-year numbers -- 37 tackles, four tackles for loss, two pass breakups, the sack and a half -- cost the preseason All-Big 12 end some pro money? “Yeah, definitely,” he says. Of course it’s crossed his mind. He knows who’s keeping score.

“It’s football, you know?” Reed said. “Stats got a lot to do with it. My stats aren’t there.”

There are a bunch of good reasons why, and Reed knows most people won’t understand them. Texas’ new defensive scheme has asked Reed to play a new role. He’s had to make sacrifices.

Nobody gives Reed credit, for example, for handling two gaps to clear room for linebackers Jordan Hicks and Steve Edmond to rack up a dozen or more tackles, which they’ve done nine times this season. The stat sheet has no love for keeping a blocker off a ‘backer.

“We tell him go fall on a grenade for us,” defensive coordinator Vance Bedford said.

Reed is playing more on the field side and playing more 4-technique in an odd front this year. That’s a far cry from what was asked of him in 2013, when Reed teamed with end Jackson Jeffcoat, the Big 12’s Defensive Player of the Year. He’s taking on a guard and a tackle. He’s stopping the run more.

“There’s a lot of stuff that, on the outside looking in, it’s a little different,” Reed said. “I’m a team player. Always been a team player. I’ll do exactly what the coaches ask me to do.”

That’s not to say he hasn’t had chances. Texas’ manchild at defensive tackle, Malcom Brown, is the one playing like an All-American. Brown is getting double-teamed now. Texas still has a Big 12-leading 26 sacks as a unit. Reed is in backfield like everyone else. He’s just not getting his usual takedowns.

But look across the Big 12, Bedford says. The ball is coming out fast. Three-step drop, read and fire. The window for sacks closes quickly.

“So people are saying ‘Ced's not doing this, Ced's not doing that.’ When we sit and watch the video, the ball is out quick and he's not going to get the sack,” Bedford said. “Sometimes we need to cover better in the back end. That's all part of it.”

The nuances behind Reed’s quiet senior campaign, while helpful, don’t bring him much peace. They can quell some of the disappointment, but not his impatience. Not with four games left in his career at Texas and no guarantee of a fifth.

“I’m used to having high numbers and high stats, and sometimes football can really humble you,” Reed said. “You’re not always going to perform the way you want to. Sometimes I feel like I haven’t performed the way I used to.”

Last December, Reed explored the possibility of going pro. He would’ve needed a guarantee of going in the first three rounds. That’s not what draft evaluations projected. Considering Jeffcoat and every other Longhorn went undrafted, perhaps Reed dodged a bullet. Doesn't feel like it now.

There’s still a market for 6-foot-5, 272-pound defensive linemen at the next level. Reed would be lying if he said he doesn’t wonder how NFL scouts perceive him now. His coaches continue to have his back.

“I would hope that he wouldn't beat himself up,” Bedford said. “Over the last couple of games, he's done a good job for us. Kansas State was probably his best game of the season.”

The next one offers another chance to start changing the story of his season. And fortunately for Reed, Texas Tech’s quarterback will either be an injured and immobile Davis Webb or a dual-threat true freshman, Patrick Mahomes.

The rookie who’s never started sounds just fine to the pass rusher who’s never been hungrier.

“I’d love to see him in there,” Reed said. “A freshman, Halloween [weekend], against Texas -- that’d be great.”

Despite losses, Texas D becoming dominant

October, 14, 2014
10/14/14
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AUSTIN, Texas -- Charlie Strong and Vance Bedford knew they’d have to rebuild a defense before Texas would be ready to win and win big. Six games in, construction is unquestionably ahead of schedule.

Signs of how dramatically this group’s production has been overhauled are all over the place. Even with two more losses, Texas’ defense through six games this season has exceeded the midseason production of its 2013 counterpart in every way.

[+] EnlargeCharlie Strong
AP Photo/Michael ThomasThe Longhorns' record may not reflect it -- yet -- but Texas coach Charlie Strong has dramatically improved the defense in his first season.
This year’s group has given up nearly 700 fewer yards and cut its yardage rate down a full 1.3 yards per play. The Longhorns rank No. 3 nationally in pass defense, No. 4 in yards per play, No. 2 in QBR defense and No. 3 in sack rate. And they’ve done it against a far tougher schedule.

Throw out two special-teams scores and two offensive turnovers for touchdowns and you get this: Texas’ defense is responsible for giving up 99 points in six games, a 16.5 points-per-game average that would rank top 10 nationally.

In the three greatest tests of his tenure, Strong’s defenders held the loaded offenses of UCLA, Baylor and Oklahoma to 20, 21 and 17 points. All three were losses. When the day comes that Strong can pair this D with a reliable offense and decent special-teams play, Texas could be poised to shake up the Big 12.

Still, ever since the 41-7 loss to BYU, a game in which a third-quarter implosion wiped out an otherwise fine day for this defense, they've been dominant. Yet that’s not how Strong and his defensive coordinator, Bedford, want to perceive things.

“If we had been dominating,” Bedford said last week, “right now we would be undefeated. We're not.”

A variety of factors have coalesced to make this group great. It’s a veteran-heavy unit. Texas has a midseason All-American in Malcom Brown setting the tone up front. Linebackers Jordan Hicks and Steve Edmond are playing the best football of their lives. The secondary hasn’t had many busts, despite relying on three first-time starters at safety.

But there’s plenty more to be said for how Strong and his staff have transformed Texas’ work on weekdays. It’s clear they value schematic versatility when it comes to coverage and defensive line fronts, and the blueprint can change on any given week depending on the opponent.

“You never know what to expect from our coaching staff,” defensive back Mykkele Thompson said.

What they expect from the players has changed dramatically. Hicks credits the staff’s insistence on an open-door policy in the coaches’ office. Players are stopping by now more than ever to talk ball and delve deeper into the game plan.

“They’re just so real about everything,” Hicks said. “We trust them. They know we trust them. They’ve built that along this entire process. They explain things in our terms, tell us the purpose and context behind why they’re doing things. It’s not surface level.”

When the staff’s plan against Baylor called for dialing up major pressure from Edmond, he was in the office every day, working to further master what was being asked. He responded with a career-best 19 tackles and two sacks against the Bears.

Cornerback Quandre Diggs has been wowed by the buy-in from players this season. It’s the concentration on weekday preparation that’s creating the success on Saturdays.

“We prepare at a totally different level than everybody is accustomed to around here,” Diggs said. “The way we prepare, it’s crazy how all guys are on board with it. We have tremendous respect for the staff. Those guys love us to death. We’ll be up here watching film on those iPads. When you go in there, they always have good tip sheets and a lot of stuff about tendencies. Those tendencies, they show up in the games and we take advantage.”

Meanwhile, back at Louisville, the defense Strong and Bedford constructed hasn’t slipped either. Their knack for talent evaluation and development continues to pay off: The Cardinals’ defense, now led by Todd Grantham, ranks No. 1 nationally in total defense, rushing defense and QBR defense and No. 2 in yards per play.

Rebuilding Texas’ defense on the same principles of preparation and information that made Louisville great is creating confidence that, when these crucial veterans -- Diggs, Edmond, Thompson, Cedric Reed, and possibly Brown and Hicks -- are gone next year, a younger defense won’t take much of a step back in 2015 and beyond.

“I think the young guys are going to see the example that we’ve set,” Hicks said. “This is the standard.”
ARLINGTON, Texas -- Five plays. Two minutes of football. That’s the difference.

That’s how quickly Texas’ gut-check triumph became gut-punching torture. A No. 12-ranked UCLA team was all but finished. Had those five plays gone as planned, the Longhorns walk out of AT&T Stadium with their first huge victory under Charlie Strong.

The result of those four plays -- UCLA 20, Texas 17 -- left them devastated.

[+] EnlargeJordan Payton
Matthew Emmons/USA TODAY SportsJordan Payton's 33-yard touchdown reception capped a five-play stretch that doomed Texas to a 20-17 loss to UCLA and a 1-2 record.
“We had that game right there,” Texas receiver John Harris said. “It hurts everybody in the locker room. It was a hard loss. The heartbreak is there. That hurts. It hurts bad.”

What makes the torment feel so much more raw was the fact that, with 4:17 left in the ballgame, they were celebrating a victory that felt almost assured.

When Steve Edmond stripped running back Jordon James and little-used defensive tackle Paul Boyette Jr. fell on it at the Texas 25, the party was on. That was it. The first turnover of the ballgame went Texas’ way. The signature victory was so close.

Tyrone Swoopes and the Texas offense took the field and got back to work with a 5-yard run from Malcolm Brown on first down.

And then, for reasons they’d later regret, they reverted back to the hurry-up pace that had, just moments earlier, helped spur an 80-yard, 10-play touchdown drive. The clock was rolling.

“We probably could’ve slowed it down a little and milked the clock,” Harris said. “I think we were still high emotion after the big touchdown. I don’t think we really grasped what was going on at that point in time.”

Brown’s next run lost 5 yards. And then Swoopes, on third-and-10, couldn’t connect with go-to receiver Harris.

Three plays. No yards gained. Only 1 minute, 11 seconds taken off the clock. Then Texas moved back to the 20 on a false start by safety Josh Turner, playing in his first game post-suspension.

While that’s not an ideal turn, not for a coach that preaches toughness and a team that knows it has to win with its run game, it’s still survivable.

Will Russ’ punt soared 58 yards. Ishmael Adams sped down the left sideline, past a crushing block by linebacker Cameron Judge. He bounced off a hit from Russ and picked up an extra 11 yards for a 45-yard return down to the 33.

And then, just as Charlie Strong and his defensive coordinator suspected, UCLA took the field knowing it was time to take the big shot.

“They ran double moves, wheel routes, fake bubble gos throughout the ballgame,” Texas DC Vance Bedford said. “For the most part we did a good job with it. Until that last play.”

Jerry Neuheisel, the backup quarterback the Longhorns were more than happy to face, sold it to perfection. When he pump-faked with 3:05 left, and Texas corner Duke Thomas bit on the faked bubble screen, Texas was finished. Jordan Payton had Thomas beat by 4 yards when he hauled in the game-winning touchdown.

“He knew he should’ve stayed on top,” Bedford said. “After the fact, it’s always tough. I feel for the young man. He played his tail off.”

And so did Texas. Its four-quarter battle felt so even and, briefly, so winnable. Edmond made the strip at 10:15 p.m. CT. Payton was in the end zone at 10:18.

“It’s about finishing,” Strong said. “When you have those opportunities, you’ve got to take advantage of them. The good teams take advantage of the opportunities."

The story before that five-play swing was of a Texas team that rallied from embarrassment, with a young quarterback enjoying breakthrough moments and a hard-nosed defense saving the day against a Bruins team missing its Heisman-contending star.

This should've been Texas storming out of AT&T Stadium as don't-bet-against-us underdogs with renewed pride.

Not Saturday. Not yet. Instead, it's another painful ending, a familiar 1-2 record and a feeling that being this close only makes it hurt worse.

BYU upset was program-changer for Texas

September, 4, 2014
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Mack BrownAP Photo/Rick BowmerThe blowout loss to BYU racheted up the pressure on Mack Brown, who resigned after the season.
AUSTIN, Texas -- The dam broke just before 8 p.m. What ensued stunned Texas to its core and set in motion the downfall of a regime.

At that precise moment, one hour and six minutes in, Taysom Hill ran right up the middle. Five Texas defenders cleared a clean path with diving missing tackles and half-speed effort.

Hill's second touchdown dash, a 20-yarder, gave BYU a 17-14 lead. There was 7:48 left in the first half, but the game was almost over.

The Longhorns didn’t just go on to lose 40-21 that night. They’d lose their quarterback, their defensive coordinator, their next game and eventually their coaching staff. And if you ask Texas players today, they lost some dignity that fateful night in Provo, Utah.

“That’s probably the most embarrassed I’ve ever been,” cornerback Quandre Diggs said.

As receiver John Harris solemnly put it: “I think that was one of the all-time lows for us as a team in general.”

What will motivate Texas on Saturday night, when Hill and BYU visit Austin for a rematch, won’t be payback so much as pride. Charlie Strong’s staff didn’t hesitate this summer to remind players about the butt-whooping the then-No. 15 Longhorns received on Sept. 7, 2013.

“Oh man. That’s all we hear,” defensive end Cedric Reed said in July. “That’s all we hear is BYU. We’re ready to play BYU this year.”

Imagine how Strong, a defensive guru, must’ve felt the first time he popped in the game tape and watched Texas’ defense permit the school-record-torching 550 rushing yards, the 679 total yards on 99 plays, the 17 missed tackles, the 233 yards after contact.

Last month, Texas defensive tackle Desmond Jackson denounced the belief that Texas had a “soft” defense in 2013. This was the game that bolstered that reputation.

Hill’s first touchdown, a 68-yard run late in the first quarter in which three Texas defensive backs whiffed at stopping a quarterback with a knee brace, set the tone early.

“At that point, we knew we were going to win this football game,” Hill said Wednesday. “We were so geared-in and having fun. Everything just became pretty easy.”

By the time Hill crossed the 30-yard line, Mack Brown had already spiked his headset.

But Texas hung in there for the first hour. Then, finally, the fracture. A roughing the punter penalty gave BYU the ball back. Four plays later, Hill scrambled. Steve Edmond could’ve stopped him after 6 yards but dove and missed. Hill split right between Josh Turner and Mykkele Thompson. Carrington Byndom and Adrian Phillips slowed up as Hill neared the goal line.

“Give him a little space and he showed everybody what he’ll do with it,” Thompson said. “I have no idea how many times I’ve watched that film from last year.”

While BYU celebrated, Manny Diaz walked past Brown. The head coach shook his head.

Soon after, Brown pulled Diaz and secondary coach Duane Akina aside. Their conference lasted no longer than 20 seconds. The head coach enumerated his complaints. Akina threw up his hands and shouted. Diaz just nodded.

Maybe he knew, from there on out, his job was on the line. But BYU was just getting started: 404 total yards on 57 snaps came after Mack’s meeting.

David Ash
AP Photo/Rick BowmerThe Longhorns lost starting quarterback David Ash after he suffered a concussion.
Midway through the fourth quarter, more disaster. A helmet-to-helmet hit left David Ash squinting and down on one knee. The yearlong struggle initiated by that concussion has sidelined Ash again, perhaps for good.

The mood in the locker room afterward? Uncomfortable. The overwhelming sentiment, Harris said, was clear: Did we really just get beat this bad?

“The morning after, waking up that Sunday, you’re asking yourself, ‘Did that really just happen?” Thompson said.

At 3:30 p.m. that Sunday, Brown told the team they had a new defensive coordinator.

“We laid an egg and we lost a guy’s job. Plain and simple,” Diggs said this week. “We let those guys down. We let ourselves down.”

One year later, Texas defenders stand by a compelling belief: They liked the game plan.

“It was a good scheme,” linebacker Jordan Hicks said. “The big thing was missed assignments.”

Strong agreed. On BYU’s biggest gains, a Texas player freelanced, didn’t respect gaps or didn’t trust a teammate to do his own job.

“If we just eliminate those mental errors, then you have a chance to go stop them,” Strong said.

Those simple fixes made Greg Robinson successful in Diaz’s place, but the Ole Miss game was a lost cause. You can’t fly in a new coordinator from California, ask him to install his brand of defense and expect winning results in six days.

A 1-2 start raised the stakes for Brown to the point that only a Big 12 title might’ve sufficed to save his job. Now Texas has a new coach with new answers for stopping BYU.

When Hill, the No. 3 rusher among all FBS quarterbacks last year, thinks back on his breakthrough night, he says he was “in the zone.” He didn’t plan on running 17 times for 259 yards. But Texas’ ends kept crashing on the read options to stuff the back. So he kept taking his easy outside lanes. Hill knows not to expect such permissive defense Saturday.

“They’ll come out with a revenge attitude,” Hill said. “We’re prepared for that and prepared to come in and match their energy.”

New DC Vance Bedford watched last year’s game live on TV. As a former Texas defensive back, he was offended. But revenge isn’t what he seeks.

“If you need motivation to go out there and get fired up, you shouldn’t be here,” he said. “If you’ve got to get amped up because something happened in the past, something’s wrong with you.”

The burden of shutting down BYU got heavier when Texas lost Ash and three starting offensive linemen. A redemptive performance is now a must.

Last year’s BYU game was Texas’ first treacherous step toward reconstruction. This year’s game can be the first step toward a revival.

“It’s a new year, new day, new team, new coaches,” Diggs said. “We’re going to go out, have a new attitude and we’re going to have fun.”
AUSTIN, Texas -- We're all a bunch of suckers.

We fell for a powerful form of distraction during the first eight months of Charlie Strong's debut year at Texas: The misdirection.

We got fixated on changes, some real and many inconsequential: Strong's media savvy, his muscles, the throwing of horns, the bus ban, the deposed smoothie bar, the gadgets, the breakfast club, the Moncrief four, the helmet decals, the roped-off logo, the dorms. You know, the low-hanging fruit.

Reporters, fans, critics, everybody. We fell for it because it was easy, and because Texas hadn't seen this kind of different in 16 years. And in the process, during this excruciatingly long offseason, it seems we overlooked a question that matters now: How will this Longhorn team line up and play? What's the mission and identity on offense and defense?

[+] EnlargeCharlie Strong
Erich Schlegel/Getty ImagesCharlie Strong wants to build Texas into a winner based on on old-school beliefs about running the ball, defense and power.
Basically, we took our eye off the ball.

What seems clear, upon some deeper digging, is Strong intends to bring his own style of ball to the Big 12, one with a complementary vision for both sides of the ball. And no, this has nothing to do with the offseason buzzwords like "toughness."

This is about the chess match that's about to begin, the one where we find out if what Strong has planned can change the Big 12, or if the Big 12 will force him to change.

Strong has played coy on this topic. The idea that he might have the element of surprise on his side seems, at least to him, dubious.

"Football is football. It's still about fundamentals and technique and that's what it comes down to," Strong said. "Everyone thinks it's about scheme. When you have players, scheme looks really good. It doesn't matter. If our kids go out and do what we ask them to do, you always have a chance."

What Texas players will be asked to do could resemble what Stanford, Alabama, Michigan State, LSU and even Big 12 foe Kansas State have come to master. Those programs are winning on old-school beliefs about running the ball, defense and power.

Texas players say the offensive philosophy is build on a downhill run game. The tag team of a potentially elite inside runner (Malcolm Brown) and a true all-purpose back (Johnathan Gray) must win the day. Run the ball, run the clock, run the pace. And then quarterback David Ash must capitalize when he sees a stacked box.

"It's very multiple. You probably hear that about our offense a lot, but it's multiple," Ash said. "We're going to do every tempo you can out of a huddle and every tempo you can out of a no-huddle. We're going to try to keep teams off-balance."

Joe Wickline coordinates the run game. Shawn Watson oversees the passing. They'll share the playcalling duties in some fashion, with Watson having final say. And recent history says this offense, for all of its fast-paced ideals, should fall in lockstep with Strong's defensive vision.

Louisville's offense wasn't just No. 2 in time of possession nationally last year. The Cards had 17 scoring drives extend 5-plus minutes (second-most in FBS only to K-State) and 21 exceed 10-plus plays. This was, on average, a two-plays-per-minute offense, one of the comparatively slowest in the country, and it won 12 games.

Watson's offense kept Strong's defense off the field. The Louisville D played 779 snaps in 2013. Texas' defense played the same number of games and finished at 966. The rest of the Big 12 averaged 937.

When you're playing 200 fewer snaps on defense, you get fresh and physical players. You get to attack. And Strong has never been afraid to do that. Defensive coordinator Vance Bedford recalls one game at Florida when Strong called six straight zero blitzes, rushing everyone who wasn't locked in one-on-one coverage.

"It worked six straight times," Bedford said proudly.

Bedford has been studying Big 12 film since the day he took the job. He knows the rest of the conference has been watching Louisville and Florida film.

"People are gonna know what we're gonna do," Bedford said. "Coach Strong came back from a Big 12 Conference thing (this summer) and they said, ‘What you guys did at Louisville, you can't do that here.' They're exactly right. I totally agree with what they're saying."

And then Bedford grinned and kept going, each line more facetious than the last.

"So what we're going to do: We're going to rush three, drop eight. Rush two, drop nine. Sit back, keep the inside in front and we'll have a chance. We're not going to pressure anybody, anytime, anywhere. We're just going to slow ‘em down.

"I'm not full of it. I'm telling the truth. Listen to me, all of you out there," he said, turning his gaze to a bank of TV cameras. "We're going to play it safe. No pressure. We don't want any quarterbacks hurt."

And while that last sentiment rings especially true of Texas, Bedford is merely offering a friendly warning. He knows that in Malcom Brown, Cedric Reed, Quandre Diggs, Jordan Hicks and several others, he and Strong have the weapons they need to pair with an offense that understands its duty.

While we were obsessed with everything else this offseason, Strong and his staff were quietly busy preparing a plan and a roster for what promises to be a fascinating four-month battle. Against North Texas on Saturday, finally, Texas gets to line up and play.

Longtime instate rivals Texas and Texas A&M haven't faced each other on the football field since the Aggies bolted for the SEC in 2012. That, however, hasn't stopped the two sides from trading barbs on Twitter.

With the NFL draft coming up, new Texas defensive coordinator Vance Bedford riled up Texas A&M fans with his Twitter views on the pro prospects of former Aggies quarterback Johnny Manziel.

Bedford started out general then he got specific:



Seriously, what do we do to get the Longhorns and the Aggies on the same field again?
AUSTIN, Texas -- Charlie Strong says he had a fairly good idea of what he wanted from his Texas coaching staff before the hunt began.

[+] EnlargeCharlie Strong
Joe Robbins/Getty ImagesNew Texas coach Charlie Strong has put together an experienced staff he's familiar with.
He wanted coaches he knew and coaches who know the state of Texas.

The staff Strong unveiled on Wednesday appears to have a good helping of both.

Ten days into the job, his staff is finally assembled, and he will hit the road on Thursday to begin selling a school the staff has barely had time to visit.

Strong had to stifle a laugh when asked if he was starting to settle in at Texas. It hasn't been easy. Not after all the work he had to put into interviewing coaches and piecing together a staff that met his standards.

He believes he’s found a group that can get Texas back to its championship standard, and more importantly, he thinks these are the guys UT needs off the field.

“This is a staff that we know what it is all about,” Strong said. “We are teachers, we're role models, we're going to motivate and lead. Just a staff that are family men, and you want that with the players.

“Because you want the players to look at a coach and say how, someday, if they don't end up being an engineer or a doctor but could go and be a coach, [they would] emulate the man standing right there in front of me. I am just so happy that we are aboard and finally completed it.”

It’s a group that touts a combined 232 years of coaching experience and, at least on paper, has a good deal of familiarity both with each other and with this state.

Strong hired four coaches he’d worked with in offensive coordinator Joe Wickline, defensive coordinator Vance Bedford, quarterbacks coach Shawn Watson and linebackers coach Brian Jean-Mary.

He hired four assistants who have coached college football in this state: Bedford, receivers coach Les Koenning, running backs coach Tommie Robinson and retained tight ends coach Bruce Chambers.

And he hired guys he’d recruited against in the past, coaches whose passion he respected in defensive line coach Chris Rumph and defensive backs coach Chris Vaughn.

And don’t forget the 10th man, the one he considers just as valuable -- if not more so -- than the rest: Strength and conditioning coach Pat Moorer, who followed him from Louisville and is already putting his new players to the test with workouts this week.

All in all, it’s a haul that has industry experts impressed. Is this the blank-check dream team that Texas fans envisioned when Strong took the job? No, maybe not. But he’s found puzzle pieces that, thanks to all the familiarity, ought to fit together well and do so quickly.

Those fans fantasized about reeling in a big fish for an offensive coordinator, no doubt Strong’s most important hire of the nine. They wanted Strong to swing for the fences with someone like Clemson's Chad Morris or Ohio State's Tom Herman.

They might not realize what they’ve got in Wickline, one of the nation’s top offensive line coaches at Oklahoma State. He and Strong were grad assistants together at Florida in 1983 and met again in Gainesville from 2002 to 2004. He knew he was handing the keys to his offense to an underappreciated gem.

“Guys pay their dues, and guys have been around great systems, and if you look at the system he has been around at Oklahoma State for nine years, they have moved the ball very well on offense,” Strong said. “When the guys have put in their time, it's like me: I have put in my time and want to be rewarded. So he has put in his time, and he is being rewarded.”

What sold him on Wickline, and so many other members of the new staff, was a mandatory trait: Toughness. His offenses and players played. Strong is surrounding himself with hard-nosed leaders because that’s what Texas needs right now.

Just as this group comes together, it’s time to split up again. The new Longhorns coaches begin their recruiting quest on Thursday, and they’ve got plenty of catching up to do on that front.

Over the next few weeks, Strong will find out just what kind of recruiters he’s hired. And then the real job -- putting the pieces back together at Texas -- will begin.

It’s a familiar challenge for Strong. To pull this off, he’s surrounded himself with familiar allies.

“I told them right from the start that this is going to be a coaching staff with no egos,” Strong said. “We are here to work together, and it is all about success. We are here to win and whatever we have to do to go win a football game, that is what we have to do.”

Big East predictions: Week 10

November, 1, 2012
11/01/12
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The MAC fooled us again, but at least Matt made the wise choice and stayed away from picking USF. Tuna beat me this week, going 3-1 while I sat at .500.

What awaits this week?

AA season record: 35-13

Temple (3-4, 2-2) at No. 10 Louisville (8-0, 3-0), noon, ABC/ESPN3. Is this the week the Cardinals finally put together a complete game? They should, given the advantages they have on both offense and defense. But Louisville has not made things easy on itself, and the Cardinals face a team quite familiar with what they like to do. Temple coach Steve Addazio and defensive coordinator Chuck Heater worked with Louisville coach Charlie Strong, defensive coordinator Vance Bedford and assistant Kenny Carter under Urban Meyer at Florida. Still, Louisville has the depth advantage and Teddy Bridgewater, so bank on the Cardinals to reach 9-0 for the first time in school history. Louisville 40, Temple 17.

Matt's pick: Louisville 35, Temple 13.

Syracuse (4-4, 3-1) at Cincinnati (5-2, 1-1), noon, Big East Network/ESPN3. Cincinnati has dropped two straight while Syracuse has won three of its past four. So should we go with the hot team in this game? Here is what precludes me from picking the Orange in the upset: Cincinnati has a mobile quarterback and outstanding running game. Syracuse has had trouble containing mobile quarterbacks. Look no further than last week's heart-stopping win against USF. The Bulls had two rushers go over 100 yards, including quarterback B.J. Daniels. While Syracuse has the quarterback advantage with Ryan Nassib, I am going with the strong Cincinnati running game to be the difference in this one. Cincinnati 30, Syracuse 28.

Matt's pick: Cincinnati 28, Syracuse 21

Pitt (4-4) at No. 3 Notre Dame (8-0), 3:30 p.m., NBC. The Panthers kept it close in their game last year and had several opportunities to go ahead in the fourth quarter, but the Irish are a vastly superior team this year. Pitt has struggled to gain any consistency both on offense and defense, and is going to need a Herculean effort from Tino Sunseri, Ray Graham, Rushel Shell and its offensive line to put points on the board against the second-best defense I have seen all season. Pitt has concerns with linebacker depth as well. The Irish might have a bit of a letdown after their huge win against Oklahoma last week, but that won't be enough to open the crack for a Pitt upset. Notre Dame 23, Pitt 10.

Matt's pick: Notre Dame 31, Pitt 6

UConn (3-5, 0-3) at USF (2-6, 0-4), 7 p.m., ESPNU/WatchESPN. The bottom-of-the-barrel bowl goes on in Tampa, as the only teams with no wins in league play fight to stay out of the cellar. Both teams have lost their share of heartbreakers, but expectations were much higher for the Bulls, who have now lost six straight. To make matters worse going into this one, they will be without offensive sparkplug Lindsey Lamar, along with Evan Landi and Derrick Hopkins. Several other key players are banged up on offense, and that could leave USF at a serious disadvantage. UConn comes in off a bye, and its top priority is to fix its rushing game. The Huskies could find opportunities against a defense that has largely underachieved. But I still think USF is the better, more talented team. The Bulls have to pull one of these games out eventually, right? Right?! USF 24, UConn 23.

Matt's pick: UConn 17, USF 14
One of the biggest frustrations for Louisville last season was its inability to stay healthy on the defensive line.

Defensive end Greg Scruggs was supposed to be one of the leaders of the group, but he was hobbled all year with a toe injury. Marcus Smith, Brandon Dunn, Roy Philon and B.J. Butler either missed time or played through various injuries. There was simply never consistency up front.

[+] EnlargeLouisville's Marcus Smith
Jamie Rhodes/US PRESSWIREMarcus Smith, left, has had a "phenomenal camp," according to defensive line coach Clint Hurtt.
But that is all set to change headed into 2012. Though Scruggs has gone on to the NFL, Louisville returns three starters and a wealth of players with game experience. This could end up being one of the best groups in the Big East.

"This is the best group we’ve had since we’ve been here," defensive line coach Clint Hurtt said in a recent phone interview. "We have a solid two-deep where if the second unit had to go out on the field, I don’t feel we’d miss a beat. We have eight, nine guys who can do stuff for us. They’re taking the coaching, and listening to us. But it’s the maturity of the group what you’re starting to see."

Hurtt continues to sing the praises of Smith, saying he has had a "phenomenal camp." In addition to the returning players listed, Jamaine Brooks, B.J. Dubose, Sheldon Rankins and Lorenzo Mauldin are expected to be major contributors as well. Mauldin is back on defense after seeing some time playing tight end last year, and will be used as a pass-rushing specialist at the outset in a Bruce Irvin-type role.

The goal is for him to eventually be an every down player once he truly begins to learn the intricacies of playing the position. The goal for the entire group is to be able to just rush its four down linemen in pressure situations. Perhaps the best news of all is there are no seniors in this group.

"The future looks bright," defensive coordinator Vance Bedford said at media day. "Right now, we have a lot of depth. Our defensive line is moving around. For us to have a chance to be successful this year, we have to win up front. If we can do that and control the line of scrimmage up front with the guys we have, with the depth that we have, I am excited.”

Anthony Conner a true inspiration

December, 23, 2011
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Anthony Conner is a cornerback. So naturally, the gift of trash talk comes pretty easily.

The Louisville senior's matchup in the Oct. 21 meeting with Rutgers was the most daunting of the season. The assignment: trying to contain Mohamed Sanu. The two are friends and old nemeses, having played against each other several times in the Big East. It was early in the game, and Conner decided to let loose with a few choice words:

"Boy, I'm about to come smash you," Conner said.

Sanu laughed.

Two plays later, Conner had his opportunity. He went to make a tackle on Sanu and hit him a little too high and at the wrong angle. Conner went down, and stayed down. Coach Charlie Strong, defensive coordinator Vance Bedford and support personnel rushed onto the field. Conner had blacked out, but when he woke up, he started focusing on the coaches and trainers in front of him. Strong and Bedford were the first two faces he saw.

[+] EnlargeLouisville's Anthony Conner
Jamie Rhodes/US PRESSWIREAnthony Conner may not make another tackle, but he's not deterred. "I'm going to focus on a new dream," he said.
"Are you OK? How do you feel?" they kept asking.

"I feel like I have a cramp in my neck," Conner replied.

He was in pain, but not an uncomfortable amount. He joked that they were taking too long to get him back into the game. They asked him to move his fingers and toes, and he did, alleviating his biggest concern. Conner was not paralyzed, so he thought he would be fine as he was taken to the hospital in an ambulance.

But when he got there, Conner got devastating news -- he had broken his neck.

His football career was over.

Rather than fade from view, however, Conner became a much more important part of his Louisville team. The night before he got hurt, it was the normally reserved Conner who stood up during a team meeting and told his teammates it was time for them to quit being so selfish and start acting like a family. Louisville was 2-4 at the time, and Conner felt it was "now or never" to step up and say something to effect change.

That speech, coupled with his injury, essentially saved the season.

His teammates rallied around him, and each other. Louisville went on to beat Rutgers, and an emotional Strong said the Cardinals won it for Conner. The following week, Conner made a surprise visit to the locker room just before kickoff against Syracuse, to rousing cheers and even a few tears. He got a standing ovation from the crowd when he rode onto the field in a golf cart during a break in the first quarter.

"The emotion that was in the locker room was something out of a movie," Conner said during a recent phone interview. "I was just melting inside. It was something that you had to be there to experience. Everybody was coming up to me, so happy to see me that I was back and doing well. It even made me cry. And I'm tough, but everybody was in there crying. I just felt all the love and support from my brothers. We were a family."

It is not overstating it to say Conner has been an inspiration to Strong and the players, a man so intent on being there for his teammates that he never missed a game after his injury. He attended practice, too, and served as another coach, another set of eyes and ears for his young teammates to follow.

Watching Louisville finish the season on a 5-1 tear -- a run that began with the win over Rutgers -- has been bittersweet, of course. Conner would do anything to play just one more down. But he is most proud of seeing his teammates act on what he said -- they came together. Because of him.

"I feel amazed that they rallied around me because they know I'm passionate about the game and I care about them as much as they care about me," Conner said. "They have shown me so much love and support, and have made me feel a part of all the victories. We had a meeting about us becoming more of a family so that's a primary reason we came closer as a family. It made me feel great."

After the injury, Strong preached to his players: today, not tomorrow. Live for the moment.

"Anthony's been the poster child for that because he's a great football player and a great person," linebacker Dexter Heyman said. "To not see him finish that season the way he should have hurt us. To see him come back into that locker room before the Syracuse game, to see him walk was a tremendous rush. You could see the pride and emotion in his eyes. It really gives you a sense of purpose and a sense of being, and makes you feel this Louisville football team is more of a family now. That's what Anthony brought to the table."

Conner is studying justice administration and communications and is set to graduate this summer. He has done a little bit of motivational speaking, and may even go into coaching. But the best part of all is that he is walking and on his way to a full recovery. His bulky neck brace has been replaced with a soft one, which should allow him more mobility and better sleep at night.

He is with his teammates in Charlotte as they prepare to play NC State in the Belk Bowl on Tuesday. Conner may never make another tackle, but he takes comfort in staying positive, and knowing there is plenty for him to do.

"I said back in the day if I didn't make it in the NFL, I wasn't going to be one of these players that keeps trying to chase it. Just be a player who can find something else that I love to do. I'm just looking at it in a positive manner. A lot of people didn't get this opportunity, so I can't be sad that I didn't go as far as my dreams, I'm going to focus on a new dream."
LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- Early on in his first spring practice as Louisville head coach last year, Charlie Strong had his players run a simple drill. A ball carrier and a defensive player entered the same 10-yard space and squared off one-on-one.

Over and over again during the drill, linebackers, safeties and corners whiffed on tackles while running backs juked them out of their shoes. If Strong didn't already shave his head, he would have pulled his hair out. Exasperated, he finally ended the exercise and just made the defensive players do push-ups.

After coming over from Florida, where he been a part of two national championships, Strong couldn't believe the state of the Cardinals program a year ago. Defensive coordinator Vance Bedford, who followed him from that Gators staff, told Strong, "You got me here. You lied to me. You got me good."

[+] EnlargeCharlie Strong
AP Photo/Tim LarsenCharlie Strong believes he has the Louisville program moving in the right direction.
"If you would have asked me a year ago at the end of spring ball, I would have said I don't know if we'll win one or two games," Strong said this week.

Louisville won seven games last year, including the Beef 'O' Brady's Bowl in its first postseason appearance in four seasons. Strong's peers rewarded him by voting him the co-Big East coach of the year.

Now about to enter his second spring as a head coach, Strong feels far better about the talent and accountability of the players in his program. Challenges, though, remain. This is still in many ways a rebuilding process, and Strong's ultimate goal of making Louisville a national title contender -- as it was in 2006 -- requires much more work.

"You have to up the ante," he said. "We got to seven wins [last season], now how many more wins can we go get? This program can't take a step backward. The foundation has been set, and now we need to continue to build upon it."

The unusual thing about Strong's rejuvenation effort in 2010 was that it was built on the backs of players who had suffered through three years of losing, not new faces brought in by the new staff. The Cardinals had a 25-man senior class last year that was willing to do whatever it took to get their first bowl game, and instead of naming a team captain whose true character he might not know that well, Strong told all 25 seniors to lead the way last spring. It's your job to make sure the team is ready for practice, he told them. It's your job to police behavior off campus.

That strategy paid off, but the flip side is that all those leaders are now gone. Louisville lost both quarterbacks who started last year (Adam Froman and Justin Burke), its star tailback (Bilal Powell), its two leading pass-catchers (Doug Beaumont and Cameron Graham), both starting cornerbacks (Johnny Patrick and Bobby Burns) and four-fifths of its dominating offensive line. The Cardinals now have fewer seniors (12) and juniors (10) on the current roster combined than last year's senior class.

"We're starting from scratch," Strong said. "It's a new team, a new challenge, new expectations. This team has to find its own identity."

The Cardinals may be young, but they clearly are setting themselves up for a future push. Strong and his staff assembled a top-25 recruiting class this year, according to ESPN.com, landing three ESPNU150 prospects and five four-star players, using their years of experience in Florida to pluck recruits out of the Sunshine State. That alone won't return Louisville to the top of the Big East or the national elite, but it's an awfully good start.

"We're probably two recruiting classes away," Strong said. "Next year will be very critical for us. We have some pieces we have to put together. Once we get all that together, then we'll have a chance."

They'll have a chance to land another star-studded class in 2012, because the staff returns nearly intact from last year. Bedford is a rising commodity who had several opportunities this offseason. Defensive line coach Clint Hurtt, who was named ESPN.com's recruiter of the year last month, interviewed for the same position at Auburn. Strong said when Hurtt left for his interview, he thought to himself, "Well, I've got to go find another coach." But Hurtt said no to the defending BCS champs.

"When Clint made that statement he made, it just shows that guys are saying, 'Hey, we're willing to sacrifice and stay here to make sure this program is heading in the right direction,'" Strong said.

There's almost no doubt that Louisville is going the right way now. Which is a whole lot more than Strong could have said at this time a year ago.

Big East spring preview

February, 23, 2011
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Spring practice is just around the corner -- South Florida will be on its new practice fields next week, while other Big East teams will follow suit shortly after.

So here's a look at what to expect from each league team this spring.

Cincinnati

Spring practice starts: March 29
Spring game: April 16

What to watch:
  • Fixing the defense: There's little doubt that improving the defense is the first order of business in Clifton. The Bearcats ranked last in the Big East last season while giving up 28 points per game. The good news is that all 11 starters on that side of the ball are back. The bad news is those are the same guys who couldn't get it done a season ago. An extra year of maturity should help, and Butch Jones expects more depth and competition on defense, including the arrival of junior-college import Malcolm Murray at safety.
  • Restocking the Binns: Cincinnati should still be strong on offense with the return of senior quarterback Zach Collaros and senior Isaiah Pead, the leading returning rusher in the Big East. Yet the loss of the league's most productive receiver in 2010, Armon Binns, means the Bearcats need to find a few more guys to make plays at receiver. D.J. Woods is an obvious choice as the new go-to guy, but he'll have to solve his fumble problems. Transfer Kenbrell Thompkins, who couldn't get eligible last season, will look to step forward. Another sidelined receiver, freshman Dyjuan Lewis, won't be cleared to join in team activities until the summer.
  • Looking for leaders: One of the problems during the 2010 4-8 season, as voiced by departing senior Jason Kelce and implied by Jones, was a lack of leadership on the team. Hey, it happens sometimes when your program has been to back-to-back BCS games and young players feel an undeserved sense of entitlement. Jones has been trying to change that, and we should be able to tell during the spring whether some new leaders have emerged.
Connecticut

Spring practice starts: March 15
Spring game: April 16

What to watch:
  • Back to the future: For the first time since the end of 1990s, and for the first time ever as an FBS-level program, the Huskies will have someone other than Randy Edsall leading them through practice in March. Former longtime Syracuse coach Paul Pasqualoni took over when Edsall left for Maryland, and Pasqualoni hired new coordinators (George DeLeone on offense and Don Brown on defense) to mix in with the holdovers from Edsall's staff. UConn has been doing things the same way for a long time, and with pretty strong results. How will the team react to Pasqualoni's new-look, old-school ways?
  • Backfield in motion: Quarterback Zach Frazer is gone. Star tailback Jordan Todman left early for the NFL. Fullback Anthony Sherman graduated. Everything behind center is new. The quarterback position looks pretty wide open, with sophomore Michael Box perhaps having the edge after making one (very unsuccessful) start in 2010. Early enrollee Michael Nebrich is one to watch. How will the Huskies replace Todman? Good question. Robbie Frey decided to concentrate on graduate school, leaving USC transfer D.J. Shoemate as the only experienced ballcarrier. Freshman Lyle McCombs' status is unclear for spring after his offseason arrest, and the two running backs in the signing class won't arrive until summer. Right now, it's anybody's guess as to who might carry on the UConn running back tradition.
  • Reloading at linebacker: The Connecticut defense brings a lot back, but one position that needs refilling is linebacker. Lawrence Wilson, who led the Big East in tackles the past two seasons, and Scott Lutrus, a four-year starter and solid leader, both exhausted their eligibility. Sio Moore looks like a rising star and had some huge games in 2010, but the other two positions have large shoes to fill.
Louisville

Spring practice starts: March 23
Spring game: April 15

What to watch:
  • Smooth sailing for Bridegwater?: The Cardinals' most pressing issue is at quarterback, where senior co-starters Justin Burke and Adam Froman are gone. Highly-touted recruit Teddy Bridgewater will participate in the spring, and how quickly he picks up the college game and coordinator Mike Sanford's system could go a long way to determining what happens this fall. If he needs more time, senior Will Stein will happily take the reins.
  • Rebuilding the O-line: The key to Louisville's offensive success was its senior-laden line, which proved to be the best in the Big East a year ago. But now four new starters must be found to go along with center Mario Benavides. The new guys must get up to speed and develop chemistry quickly for the running game and presumed new starter Jeremy Wright to duplicate last season's progress.
  • Last line of defense: Louisville's defense was most vulnerable at its back end at times last season, and now the Cardinals must replace both starting cornerbacks (including All-Big East first team performer Johnny Patrick), no to mention two senior linebackers. An obvious candidate to take over some leadership is safety Hakeem Smith, who was the Big East rookie of the year. The plus side is that Charlie Strong and coordinator Vance Bedford will have more young talent to work with.
Pittsburgh

Spring practice starts: March 15
Spring game: April 16

What to watch:
  • Golden Graham?: There will be no more drastic change in the Big East this spring than the offense at Pittsburgh, which will go from a run-based pro-style attack to Graham's no-huddle, wide-open, points-per-minute machine. Can the Panthers get this new offense up and running this spring? Does Graham have the players to make it work? And how will his offense, so successful in Conference USA, translate into the more rugged Big East? All those questions will be fascinating to follow.
  • Quarterback competition: Junior Tino Sunseri started every game in his first year at the controls in 2010, and he played well at times. But a new style and new coaching staff means that he might have an edge, but not necessarily an insurmountable one, in this spring's competition. Redshirt freshman Mark Myers is multi-talented and will be given a look, along with classmate Anthony Gonzalez and Kolby Gray. The current staff has no loyalty to Sunseri, so he'll need to perform at a high level this spring to keep his job.
  • Shoring up the 'D': It's no secret that Pitt struggled in defending the pass last season. Graham's offense may be more explosive, but he doesn't want to have to get into shootouts all the time. He and defensive coordinator Keith Patterson have experience running 3-3-5 and 4-2-5 formations and may go to more of those kinds of looks to counter the increasing spread offenses throughout the league. First Pitt will have to get better play from its secondary and linebackers in pass coverage, and that starts this spring.
Rutgers

Spring practice starts: March 29
Spring game: April 30

What to watch:
  • Line change: The first thing to focus on this spring for the Scarlet Knights is the front five on offense. The offensive line has been a mess for the past two years and was an utter disaster a year ago. Head coach Greg Schiano is counting on junior-college center Dallas Hendrickson to provide some immediate help, and that another year will lead to better things for the returnees. Rutgers needs answers at right tackle, especially, and if the line can't block its own defense in spring practice, you'll know there's trouble.
  • A Frank re-assessment: Former Pitt offensive coordinator Frank Cignetti takes over the Scarlet Knights' playcalling duties this spring, and his pro-style background seems like a perfect match for what Schiano likes to do. Look for Cignetti to try to establish a stronger running game this spring (while waiting for mega-recruit Savon Huggins to arrive this summer) and abandon the Wildcat formation and other gimmicks that Rutgers desperately turned to the past two years. His work with sophomore starter Chas Dodd will also be critical, since there are no other experienced quarterbacks on campus.
  • Recharging the defense: You always expect a Schiano-led defense to be rock solid, but that defense wore down last season and ended up allowing more points in conference play than anybody. Three of the starting four defensive linemen are gone, as well as the team's leading tackler -- linebacker Antonio Lowery -- and safety Joe Lefeged. Schiano has recruited well and has lots of young players ready to step into bigger roles. Spring will be the time we start to learn who's ready to handle increased responsibilities.
South Florida

Spring practice starts: March 3
Spring game: April 2

What to watch:
  • Transfers accepted: Running backs Darrell Scott and Dontae Aycock have strong credentials; Scott was one of the more sought-after recruits in the country before disappointing at Colorado, while Aycock was set to play for Auburn. Both become eligible this year and will show their stuff this spring. The two big-bodied ballcarriers could add some power and explosiveness to the Bulls offense. Notre Dame transfer Spencer Boyd should bring depth, at the very least, to the secondary.
  • B.J. still the main Bull?: Junior B.J. Daniels seemed to reassert himself as the starter with a big performance in the Meineke Car Care Bowl win over Clemson. But before that, there were serious questions about whether sophomore Bobby Eveld might unseat him. Daniels goes into the spring with an obvious edge, but he'll be pushed by Eveld and redshirt freshman Jamius Gunsby. He'll need to perform at a consistent level to stiff-arm questions about his job security.
  • Receiver reconstitution: No doubt, receiver was the position that needed the largest upgrade a year ago. The bad news is, the Bulls lost leading pass-catcher Dontavia Bogan, who was nearly a one-man show at wideout in 2010. On the flip side, A.J. Love and Sterling Griffin return from injury. And Skip Holtz hopes getting thrown into the fire last season sped the development of guys like Evan Landi, Joel Miller and Lindsey Lamar. At the very least, the position has a lot more experience and depth than it did a year ago at this time.
Syracuse

Spring practice starts: March 8
Spring game: April 16

What to watch:
  • Displacing Delone: Senior Delone Carter brought the thunder to the Syracuse running game the last two years, and he may have been the least favorite ballcarrier for opposing tacklers to bring down. With him gone, it remains to be seen whether the smaller Antwon Bailey can be an every-down back, or if youngsters like Prince-Tyson Gulley and Jerome Smith are ready for an increased role in the offense.
  • Linebacker makeover: It would be hard for any team to lose a more productive linebacker tandem than the Orange did with seniors Doug Hogue and Derrell Smith. They were both crucial to what defensive coordinator Scott Shafer liked to do. The lone returning starter is Marquis Spruill, who played as a true freshman last year. Could a newcomer like junior-college transfer Siriki Diabate be ready to help immediately?
  • Wideout wonders: Marcus Sales helped rescue an ailing passing game with his breakout performance in the New Era Pinstripe Bowl. Is Sales ready to play like that all the time now, or was he a one-game wonder? Will Van Chew continue the improvement he showed last season before getting injured? Can the Orange get more out of Alec Lemon? What new faces might help at receiver? The answers to these questions will be key to the attack under Nathaniel Hackett, who was promoted to offensive coordinator this offseason.
West Virginia

Spring practice starts: March 28
Spring game: April 29

What to watch:
  • Dana days: Mountaineer Nation is salivating at the thought of what Dana Holgorsen will do to revive the offense. Holgorsen has had an immediate and incredible impact at the last two places where he called plays, and some solid work in the spring is required to do the same in Morgantown. A couple of things are for sure: the Mountaineers will be throwing it around a whole bunch during practice, and fans will breathlessly gobble up every small detail. Another thing to watch will be the chemistry between Holgorsen's hand-picked offensive staff and Bill Stewart, the man he'll replace at the end of the season. That relationship will also be dissected relentlessly.
  • Defense reload or rebuild?: Most people assume West Virginia will continue to field an excellent defense because of coordinator Jeff Casteel. That may be true, but no team lost more defensive talent than the Mountaineers, who must replace frontline players like tackle Chris Neild, linebacker J.T. Thomas, safety Robert Sands and cornerback Brandon Hogan, among others. There's still a lot to like here, including ends Julian Miller and Bruce Irvin and corner Keith Tandy, but for Casteel must find new contributors to keep his 3-3-5 humming along.
  • Who's in the backfield?: It's not yet know just how much quarterback Geno Smith will be able to do during spring practice after his offseason foot surgery. Obviously, the more reps he can take, the better he'll be able to get Holgorsen's system down. And there's no experience behind him. West Virginia will be cautious with Smith, though, because the fall is way more important. With Noel Devine gone and Tavon Austin seemingly making his move to receiver permanent, there will be competition for the starting running back spot. Shawne Alston and Ryan Clarke are bulldozers who could add an interesting wrinkle to Holgorsen's spread if they get the job done.

Beef 'O' Brady's Bowl Louisville keys

December, 21, 2010
12/21/10
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Three keys for Louisville against Southern Miss in the Beef 'O' Brady's Bowl on Tuesday night:

1. Establish Bilal Powell: Cardinals coach Charlie Strong calls his senior-led offensive line the backbone of the team, and he believes they can run on anybody. Southern Miss finished 13th nationally against the run this year, allowing just 113 yards per game on the ground with 300-pound run stuffers like John Henderson and Anthony Gray in the middle up front. Louisville's offense usually goes as running back Powell goes, and the more successful he is, the more Southern Miss' offense has to stay on the sideline.

2. Make something happen in the passing game: Adam Froman started the first eight games at quarterback and played pretty well before suffering a deep thigh bruise. Justin Burke took over for the final four games before getting injured himself in the finale at Rutgers. Both should be ready for Tuesday night, and offensive coordinator Mike Sanford said he expects both seniors to play. Louisville's passing game didn't do much the final month or so of the season, but the opportunities should be there against a Golden Eagles defense that ranks 103rd nationally against the pass. Whoever is in at quarterback needs to take advantage and avoid mistakes, because beating Southern Miss will probably require a score somewhere in the high 20s or more.

3. Contain Austin Davis: The Golden Eagles rely a lot on Davis, their quarterback. He has close to 3,000 yards passing and is third on the team in rushing. Play the pass too much, and he'll slip in a few big gains on the zone-read play. Louisville has done an excellent job all year of applying pressure from confusing angles in defensive coordinator Vance Bedford's scheme. The pressure has to get to Davis and not let him burst free, or he can do some serious damage.

Big East awards race update: Week 13

November, 23, 2010
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Only two regular-season games left -- or one, for Louisville and Syracuse -- for players to make to their cases for some individual hardware.

Player of the year race: Offense

1. Jordan Todman, RB, Connecticut: Todman all but engraved his name on the trophy with a 130-yard, two-touchdown day against Syracuse on Saturday. He went over 1,300 yards for the season with two games left.

2. Armon Binns, WR, Cincinnati: Binns solidified his stake as the best receiver in the Big East, at least production-wise, with a six-catch, 139-yard performance against Rutgers. He needs 35 more yards to reach 1,000 for the season.

3. Geno Smith, QB, West Virginia: Smith didn't do a whole lot in the Louisville game, completing just 9 of 20 passes, but he continues to be the most important player on the Mountaineers' offense.

4. Bilal Powell, RB, Louisville: Powell has been quiet most of the past few games because of injury, and on Saturday he barely made a dent in the stat sheet while dealing with an illness and the sick West Virginia defense.

5. Zach Collaros, QB, Cincinnati: Collaros tossed four more touchdown passes against Rutgers, giving him a league-best 24 on the season.

Player of the year race: Defense

1. Jabaal Sheard, DE, Pittsburgh: Sheard was relatively quiet stats-wise against South Florida but is still the most-feared defender in the Big East.

2. Chris Neild, DT, West Virginia: The Mountaineers' defense is on a historic pace without a lot of superstars, but Neild starts it off as the anchor up front.

3. Lawrence Wilson, LB, Connecticut: Had eight more tackles against Syracuse to go over 100 for the second straight year.

4. Keith Tandy, CB, West Virginia: Grabbed his Big East-best sixth interception versus Louisville.

Coach of the year race

1. Doug Marrone, Syracuse: No matter what else happens, winning seven games and getting the Orange back to a bowl should be enough for Marrone to win this award going away.

Coordinator of the year race


1. Jeff Casteel, West Virginia: His defense is just astounding, allowing 12.9 points and 88 rushing yards per game while leading the nation in third-down defense. If he doesn't get mentioned for head-coaching jobs this December, I'll be dumbfounded.

2. Scott Shafer, Syracuse: The Orange defense is responsible for the team's major turnaround, and Syracuse was flat-out nasty on the road because of it.

3. Mark Snyder, South Florida: Inherited a defense that lost five starters to the NFL and not only didn't lose a beat, but made them tougher against the more physical teams in the league.

4. Vance Bedford, Louisville: People usually talk about Charlie Strong when they mention the Cardinals' defense, but Bedford is the defensive coordinator. Louisville's defense is posting its best numbers in more than a decade. Considering the lack of elite talent on that side of the ball, especially up front, that's amazing.

Considering the way the Big East is gone, it's not at all amazing that all the coordinators on this list come from the defensive side of the ball.

Louisville keeps Syracuse bowl hungry

November, 6, 2010
11/06/10
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Syracuse has gained a lot of attention in the Big East and nationally for its turnaround and march toward bowl eligibility. Doug Marrone has earned praise and consideration for coach of the year honors.

Well, don't forget about Louisville and Charlie Strong. The Cardinals showed they're awfully improved, too, by beating Syracuse 28-20 in the Carrier Dome on Saturday.

And speaking of coaching jobs ... Strong and his staff got this victory despite playing without star tailback Bilal Powell and starting quarterback Adam Froman, who both missed the game with injuries. Yet the Cardinals controlled the action in the trenches, particularly in the second half when they held the Orange to just a field goal while consistently moving the ball with their running game.

Redshirt freshman Jeremy Wright helped make up for the loss of Powell by running 19 times for 98 yards and two touchdowns, all career highs. Justin Burke, a senior who had thrown just seven passes this year, was 13-of-25 for 143 yards and two touchdowns. Burke's numbers aren't dazzling, but he made some really smart decisions in avoiding pressure and keeping plays alive for positive yardage. Most importantly, he avoided key mistakes.

The Cardinals got it done against the second-best defense in the Big East, one that had allowed only 21 points total in its previous two games.

Syracuse had only 52 yards of offense in the second half and couldn't do much of anything against the defense led by Strong and coordinator Vance Bedford. The big play came early in the second half, when Ryan Nassib found Alec Lemon just in front of the goal line, completely open. The ball hit Lemon in the chest -- and he dropped it. The Orange had to settle for a field goal.

Still, they probably wouldn't have done enough to win this game, especially the way Louisville was tackling and hitting in that second half. Syracuse had been winning with its defense, but had to taste its own medicine Saturday.

Louisville stopped an 11-game conference road losing streak that dated back more than three years. Now at 5-4 and 2-2 in the Big East, the Cardinals are in good shape to make a bowl game for the first time since the 2007 Orange Bowl. They have exceeded last year's win total, and Strong should get some consideration for Big East coach of the year along with Marrone.

The Orange (6-3, 3-2) had hoped to get their seventh win and clinch a bowl berth for the first time since 2004 (they need seven wins because of two victories against FCS opponents). They'll have to wait for that, and I still think they'll get there. But this really hurts their chances of winning the league, and it continues the strange pattern of poor defensive play at home.

Syracuse has allowed 73 points in two Big East games at the Carrier Dome, but only 30 in three games on the road. Perhaps the school can petition to play the rest of its games on the road, because this is the second straight time it has disappointed an energized home fan base with a loss at the Dome.

The big winner this weekend: Pittsburgh. The Panthers didn't play, but they're 3-0 in the league while everyone else has at least two conference losses.

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