Kicking it with Florida's Charlie Strong

Posted by ESPN.com's Chris Low

Defense in the SEC is a lot like snow skiing at Squaw Valley.

It's the best of the best.

The same goes for defensive coordinators in the SEC. They're some of the best in all of college football, and Florida's Charlie Strong belongs near the top.

He's put together defensive game plans that have held Ohio State and Oklahoma to a combined 21 offensive points in the Gators' two BCS National Championship Game wins the past three years.

The high-powered Sooners swooped into Miami last season having scored 58 or more points in six straight games, but were held to 14 by Strong's Florida defense.

It's a defense that listed 14 of the 22 players on its two-deep as freshmen or sophomores, and all but one are back.

Strong, one of the most unassuming coaches you'll ever meet, is long overdue to get a shot at a head coaching job. He's not bitter, and he's not consumed by it.

His stance on the whole issue: If it's to be, it will be. In the meantime, he's focused on doing what it takes to win another title at Florida.

The Gators open spring practice later today, and Strong took some time to share his thoughts on the challenges ahead for a Florida program that really has it rolling right now.

What are your most pressing priorities on defense this spring?

Charlie Strong: We need to establish some depth. We have a number of guys coming back, and with the number of guys we do have coming back, it's going to be good that we get a lot of competition. So if we get some injuries, we know we're going to have guys ready to replace them.

Defensive tackle was a big question mark last season. Those guys came through for you, though. How does that position look for next season?

CS: I think we'll be even better there. With a lot of those guys last year, there were questions. But they were able to go out and give us some really critical plays and some critical minutes for us. There's always room for improvement. What we need there is a dominating guy. We didn't have that last season. [Lawrence] Marsh and [Terron] Sanders started for us, but let's see if they can kind of separate themselves from the pack.

One of your top signees last year, tackle Omar Hunter, was hurt and wound up redshirting. How has he come along?

CS: It's a very key spring for him. He didn't play a lot, and you'd like Brandon Antwine to get healthy, too. Jaye Howard didn't play a lot or Earl Okine. We have a bunch of guys up front who are in that critical stage where we need them to go make a move for us.

With 21 of the 22 guys from last season's two-deep back on defense, how intense will the competition be this spring?

CS: We want the competition to just be furious out there. When you look at it, that's how you take that next step. It's just like the tackle position. We know Marsh and Sanders are starting, but we need Omar to come so he can push them. That's only going to make those guys better football players. If you can get that competition going and guys know they're going to play, then they're going to work harder for you. That's what we've got to get established this spring.

Battling some degree of complacency is something a lot of teams have to fight coming off a championship season. Have you noticed any hint of that this offseason?

CS: What's critical for us as coaches is not to let that seep in. It's human nature when you have accomplished something to kind of sit back and get complacent. We can't let complacency set in. The kids are working hard, and I always look at it like this: They're going to go the way we go.

How critical will linebacker Brandon Spikes be to this defense?

CS: His leadership is really critical for us, and I've told him, 'Spikes, this football team is going to go as you go.' The thing he can't do is say, 'Yeah, I had all those awards last year, and I played really well,' because he can play better. He knows he can't settle, and he knows he can't think he's better than what he is. I think, with him, he's got to continue to stay hungry. If he does, then we have a chance to have another good defensive football team.

Were you surprised that Spikes returned for his senior season?

CS: I really wasn't. I think with that kid that he knew there were some weaknesses that he had and didn't want to get exposed. He felt like if he could go another year in college that he could strengthen those weaknesses and give himself a chance to go even higher [in the NFL draft].

You've worked under Steve Spurrier and Lou Holtz and now Urban Meyer. What has made Meyer so successful.

CS: He's so organized, and the other thing he has is a vision and he has a plan. His relationship with the players is what's critical. It's critical as a head football coach and it's critical for the assistant coaches. The thing you have to realize, if you're going to work for Urban is that you better have a relationship with your players and you better know everything that is going on with your players. Plus, you have to be a great teacher. It's not complicated. You have to be able to get good football players, which he has, and any time you have a great relationship with your players, you have to be a great recruiter ... and he's a great recruiter.

What was your reaction to what Tennessee coach Lane Kiffin said about Meyer?

CS: A lot of times, guys say some things to probably draw attention to their own program. But I think Urban looked past that. I know this: We have to play Tennessee. They're one of our biggest rivals, so we probably didn't put as much into it as a lot of people did.

Do you really expect anybody to believe that?

CS: [Laughing] Nah, probably not.