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."
"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.