TAMPA — Charlie Strong left the state of Florida three years ago when the former Gators defensive coordinator became Louisville's head coach. In many ways, he took a big part of the state with him.
As No. 16 Louisville prepares to play host to USF on Saturday, the Sunshine State has arguably a greater presence on the field for the Cardinals than the Bluegrass State. Star quarterback Teddy Bridgewater is from Miami, and seven of his top nine targets for passes are from Florida, as are four of Louisville's top six tacklers. In all, you'll find twice as many players from Florida (27) on the offensive and defensive two-deep depth chart than from Kentucky (13).
Most Big East programs recruit Florida heavily, but few have the connections that Louisville has in the state — Strong had three stints in Gainesville and was defensive coordinator on the Gators' 2006 and 2008 national championships, and three of his current assistants were with him on Urban Meyer's staff. Recruiting coordinator Clint Hurtt, who recruits the Miami area, played for the Hurricanes and was a top recruiter there before Strong grabbed him; receivers coach Ron Dugans, who recruits the Panhandle, played at Florida State; and linebackers coach Brian Jean-Mary was born in Apopka.
"It's about relationships. We have enough coaches on this staff that have recruited the state of Florida. We've been able to go down and find the guys that are key to our program," Strong said Monday. "It's all about getting the right fit. You look at our quarterback, our free safety (leading tackler Calvin Pryor), at numerous players within this program from the state of Florida, we've had that success, and it's easier to go back and recruit because of the success those players are enjoying right now."
That group enjoys a pair of Tampa-area players — junior George Durant out of Boca Ciega High has started three of the past four games at strongside linebacker and is tied for the team lead in tackles for loss, while junior Kamran Joyer of Wesley Chapel, who signed with USF in 2009 but was not initially accepted into school, made his first career start for the Cardinals last week at left guard.
With 34 players from Florida on the roster and a head-to-head showdown on the schedule every year, Louisville is one of USF's biggest out-of-state recruiting rivals, so Saturday's outcome could play a role in signing day in February.
"We go up against (them) quite a bit," said USF coach Skip Holtz, whose team won at Louisville in 2010 and is hoping to end a four-game losing streak this season. "You hear their name quite a bit in recruiting, as we're battling for a lot of the same players. A lot of the players that are here were also recruited by Louisville. You get every school in the Big East coming down here but … probably Louisville is one of the bigger ones, yes."
The biggest recruiting battleground might be in Miami, where the Cards have Bridgewater and 14 others, including receiver Eli Rogers. Some of USF's top signees have come from Miami, including cornerbacks Kayvon Webster and George Baker and defensive tackles Elkino Watson and Todd Chandler.
"They have a strong presence. They put a lot of coaches in the area," said USF assistant Larry Scott, who has also found recruiting success in the Miami area. "They do a really good job of saturating it, which makes you really have to get in there and dig in also and be competitive. It's a healthy competition. We see each other all the time. It's kind of a rubbing of the shoulders when we walk by, but they're a bunch of good guys and they work hard. So do we down there. We get a guy on campus, they get a guy on campus and then you see what happens."