GAINESVILLE — By the time Florida's season came to a four-loss end in the Capital One Bowl last year, Charlie Strong was a beaten man. To say it was a tough season for the Gators' defensive coordinator would be a serious understatement.
With the Gator defense having lost its starting lineup from the 2006 national championship team, most expected it to have some rebuilding to do. But the reality was worse than Strong anticipated, and he took the brunt of the criticism.
"It had to be hard for him," sophomore cornerback Joe Haden said. "For him and (safeties) Coach (Chuck) Heater. And we felt like the DBs were the main ones who let the team down, so we wanted to come out this year and be one of the strengths of the team. Coach Strong told us we had to step our game up. Nobody on our team had like a primo name, or none of that stuff, so we had to pull together as a unit to be a strong defense."
Strong, his staff and the defensive players took it upon themselves to make sure this year would be different. And it wasn't just about wins and losses or who would start. It was about maturing, working harder than ever in the offseason, building depth and making sure they would be better, no matter what.
"The guys took ownership after what happened last season," Strong said. "They knew we didn't play well, and even though there were a variety of reasons for it, the fact is we weren't very good. And so the main thing we talked about, the main focus was simple this year: We have to play better. That's it. We have to play better."
And they have. Much better.
Heading into Saturday's game against No. 23 Florida State, Florida has the No. 3 scoring defense in the nation, allowing 12 points per game, compared with No. 46 last season. It ranked No. 98 in pass defense last year; this season, it is No. 20. And the Gators have gone from No. 41 in total defense to No. 3. They lead the nation with a plus-18 turnover margin.
Although inexperience was a large factor in Florida's troubles, it's not as if the Gators are filled with veterans this year. Fourteen of the 22 players on the two-deep defensive roster are freshmen and sophomores. So the turnaround is very much about Strong — and what he has been able to do with what he has.
"Charlie Strong, I think, has developed into really one of the best coordinators in the country," South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier said.
With his most recent success, Strong, 48, has again become a hot prospect, and speculation is rampant that the 25-year assistant will become a candidate for several vacant head coaching positions. He dismisses the notion.
"My name has been out there for, what, the last four years?" Strong said. "I have a great job here, and I don't even listen to it anymore because if you let yourself get consumed with it, it will take away from what you're doing now. And my job now is to work at the University of Florida and get this team prepared to play. And that's all I'm concerned about."
Antonya English can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.