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Kicking it with Florida's Charlie Strong

Posted by ESPN.com's Chris Low

How do you improve on a national championship defense that has everybody back from the same unit that held one of the highest scoring teams in NCAA history to 14 points a year ago in the BCS National Championship Game?

In Charlie Strong’s world, it's all about peanuts.

Last week, Florida's seventh year defensive coordinator told cornerback Joe Haden that LSU’s Brandon LaFell would be eating peanuts from the top of his head. As it turns out, LSU couldn’t manage peanuts against the Gators’ defense and was held to a single field goal, 1-of-9 on third down and just 162 yards of total offense.

Strong is always looking for ways to motivate his guys. He challenges them publicly, makes sure they’re well aware that somebody’s pushing them on the practice field and will occasionally go out of his way to talk up an opposing player on offense.

And, yeah, that defense is a big reason the Gators are 5-0 this season and ranked No. 1 nationally, as evidenced by the fact that they lead the country in total defense and scoring defense.

They've allowed just two touchdowns all season and only seem to be getting better.

And, so does Strong, who’s worked for a few good head coaches in his time -- Urban Meyer, Lou Holtz and Steve Spurrier to name a few.

“I told Urban this summer that Charlie’s a better coordinator than he was three years ago,” Spurrier said. “Not only do they have outstanding athletes, but they’re very well-coached, disguise coverages very well and seem to know what the other team is doing all the time.”

Strong, whose defense faces the best offense it’s seen this season (by far) Saturday against Arkansas, took some time this week to talk about the Gators’ impressive start defensively and what he expects from this group the rest of the way:

You said this summer that you wanted this defense to become a dominant defense. You sure look dominant. Are you there?

Charlie Strong: We’re getting there, but we still have a lot of work to do. One of the things we have to do is get healthy. We have to get all of our guys back, like getting (tackle) Lawrence Marsh back into the plan, and then develop as a defense and get better as a defense with everybody out there.

Who else had been less than 100 percent?

CS: Brandon Spikes had been slowed (by an Achilles problem), but that was the best game he’d played the whole year against LSU. It was at the right time, but we need that type of performance every game. This defense needs to come and play like that every game.

When Spikes plays like that, how much does it rub off on your entire defense?

CS: That’s what he does. It just shoots off through everyone on defense by the way he plays and the way he handles himself. Guys feed off of him. Even a guy like Janoris Jenkins told him, ‘We’re going to go as you go, Spikes. If you don’t play hard, we won’t play hard. But when you go, we’re gonna go.’

How pleasing is it to see the way your guys on defense have responded every time you’ve challenged them?

CS: You’ve got to keep challenging them. When you’ve got this many guys back, guys do get complacent. Guys do think they’re better than what they actually are, and you have to stay on them. I’ve told our defensive staff this, but this is probably going to be one of our toughest years we’ve ever had to coach because of what all we have back and our expectations and everyone else’s expectations. I got on them at halftime (of the LSU game) because they weren’t sticking to their jobs. Everybody has a responsibility. You’ve got to take care of your responsibility, and we were all over the place in the first half of that game. The guys were so wired up because it was such a big game, which there’s nothing wrong with that, but I had to let them know that they needed to take care of their job and nobody else’s.

Arkansas has been as hot as anybody offensively the last few weeks. What will be critical in slowing down the Hogs?

CS: What we can’t do is just allow them to throw the ball all over us and go up and down the field on us. We’re going to have to get pressure on the quarterback, and we’re going to have to come out and be ready to play. We were ready to play at LSU. We better be ready to play this game, too, or we’ll go out there and get totally embarrassed.

Alabama got a lot of pressure on Arkansas quarterback Ryan Mallett, got him out of the pocket and took him out of his game. What can you take from Alabama’s defensive game plan?

CS: We’re a little different than Alabama, and they do have a great defense. But we studied that game and how they attacked them. Arkansas was able to come back some in the second half and move the ball, but they didn’t score any points on them. The key to that game was all the pressure Alabama got on Mallett.

When you’re as talented and deep as you are in your secondary, how much more flexibility does that give you when calling defensive plays?

CS: What it does is this: When I want to play man, I can go play man and not be afraid to get beat deep. Then if I want to go back and play some zone, I can because I know guys are going to break on the football and attack it. LSU had good receivers, but I wasn’t afraid at all to put my guys in there in coverage and go cover those guys. We played a lot of man that game, and they were able to cover them.

How many guys are you playing now in your defensive rotation?

CS: In the secondary, we’re playing three safeties and four corners. At linebacker, I’m playing five guys. Up front, we’re rotating nine or 10 guys, So we’re going with about 21 or 22 guys most games, which is more than we’ve played in the past. But we have more guys who are prepared to play and more guys who understand that if they go out and practice hard, they’re going to get a chance to play.

What have been your impressions of Mallett?

CS: His size and his arm strength jump out at you, and he does a good job of staying in the pocket. He will take a hit, but he’s just so strong. He’s got a great release, throws a really good ball and is accurate.

When you have so many talented players, how fierce is the competition on the practice field?

CS: I’ll tell you what. Guys don’t want to get hurt, because they know they might not get their spot back. That’s one of the reasons we play so many guys. Everybody’s pushing everybody else, and it keeps guys playing at a top-notch level. I think it’s helped us tremendously.

Do you think this defense is better than the 2006 defense?

CS: I think it’s too early to say that. We’ll know here in the next few weeks. Guys still have to understand that we can get better and nothing is going to be easy these next few weeks.

That 2006 defense was so strong in the interior with dominant defensive tackles. Is that the biggest difference in the two defenses?

CS: We don’t have those guys. That 2006 defense had (Jarvis) Moss and (Derrick) Harvey and (Marcus) Thomas. We don’t have those dominant interior guys like we did with that 2006 team.