Louisville has newfound passion under Strong

Charlie Strong had never been a head coach before accepting the Louisville job in December. But the first-year leader of the Cardinals has been involved in plenty of BCS contests as defensive coordinator at Florida for seven seasons, which is why bringing a Big East championship back to Louisville is the ultimate goal for Strong and his staff — no matter how far the program may have fallen under the departed Steve Kragthorpe.

The 49-year-old Strong inherits a program that is coming off a disappointing three-year run under Kragthorpe in which the Cardinals went 15-21 — including a disastrous 4-8 mark in 2009. U of L has not been to the postseason since 2006 when the team won the Big East championship and earned a berth to the Orange Bowl under Bobby Petrino. It was the school’s first and only trip to a BCS game.

Strong hopes to make BCS appearances a common occurrence during his stay with the Cardinals.

He knows that a commitment to recruiting is the biggest component to assembling a major-conference contender. He was an accomplished recruiter at Florida and still has ties to high schools — particularly in southern states — that should be able to net attractive recruits to Louisville.

He also knows that he must make better inroads to Cincinnati-area high schools — especially because of the proximity to Louisville and the fact that former UC head coaches Mark Dantonio and Brian Kelly did such a good job of getting talent from their own backyards when they were coaching the Bearcats.

Strong, who owns two national championship rings from his days in Gainesville, already was able to snag a prospect from UC in this year's recruiting class — quarterback Dominique Brown.

Of course, getting the best high school players from the city of Louisville will be essential, as well, especially since rival Kentucky started to make a dent in that area under former head coach Rich Brooks.

It’s no coincidence that the Cardinals’ biggest rivals are the Bearcats and Wildcats. And the pressure is only intensified for a head coach at Louisville with Cincinnati winning back-to-back Big East titles.

With the intense atmosphere cultivated by sports-crazed Louisville residents and fans craving for a consistent winner, have they embraced Strong since his arrival on campus?

That seems to be the case, as there’s a newfound energy in the city and rejuvenated hope following a season in which Louisville recorded the two smallest crowds in Papa John's Cardinal Stadium history: 21,497 against Arkansas State and 23,422 for Rutgers. Those numbers certainly didn’t bode well for Kragthorpe considering that the stadium will be expanded from 42,000 to 56,000 before this season’s opener against Kentucky.

Strong, who waited 27 years to become a head coach, knows the importance of the off-the-field duties a program-builder must carry out in trying to market his product. He learned from one of the best in that area: Urban Meyer. So, Strong opened his spring practices up to the public and let fans see what he hopes is a fun and exciting brand of football.

Because the talent level at Louisville has dropped since Petrino sped off to the NFL — and right back to the college game — Strong may be in for a trying first season. The Cardinals allowed 26.2 points per game in ‘09, were second-to-last in the conference in total defense and last in rushing defense. The defensive line seems to lack an impact defensive end and looks small inside at tackle. The good news is that Strong will build that unit back up quickly. After all, he remains a defensive coach at heart.

From every indication, athletic director Tom Jurich hired the perfect coach to turn around the Louisville program. Throughout spring practice, the Cardinals seemed to have a newfound passion — determined to reclaim a winning culture and compete in a conference that also welcomes new head coaches Skip Holtz at South Florida and Butch Jones at Cincinnati.

When the season kicks off against rival Kentucky, who has beaten Louisville the last three seasons, Cardinals fans will officially be able to put the Kragthorpe years behind them and officially embrace a new era — where only the Strong will survive.

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Cowboys feel the need for speed

The need for speed never stops driving NFL clubs.

Just look to the Dallas Cowboys who are reportedly going to give Australian speedster Josh Ross a tryout. Ross, who competed in the 100-meter dash in the 2004 Olympic Games, is set to show the Cowboys what he can do.

According to Charean Williams of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, Ross told The Age, an Aussie publication, that he will work out for the team.

“I realize there's a long, long way to go yet, but I'm determined to show them what I can do,” Ross said. “It will be very competitive over there, but it's not at all daunting for me. I'm used to that kind of pressure.”

The Cowboys have gone the Olympic speedster route before with “Bullet” Bob Hayes, who finally received his due in the Pro Football Hall of Fame a year ago. Finding track speed isn’t the difficult part. Finding wide receivers with track speed is the difficult part.

The San Francisco 49ers signed Renaldo Nehemiah in 1982 to much fanfare. The world record holders in hurdles, Nehemiah had a nondescript three-year career with the 49ers. He caught 43 passes for 754 yards and scored four touchdowns. But dabbling in football raised his profile and he was the only four-time winner of The Superstars, the ABC show.

At the same time Hayes was finding success on the gridiron with the Cowboys, Jimmy “Oops” Hines had a failed run with the Miami Dolphins. The first man to break the 10-second mark in the 100 meters, Hines was a sixth-round draft pick of the Dolphins in 1968. He appeared in two games in 1969 and caught two passes. Hines’ career ended after one game the next season with the Kansas City Chiefs.

We’ll see if Ross even makes it that far. And we’ll also speculate that Patrick Crayton will become even further incensed if Ross is signed by Dallas.

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Bears have depth issue when it comes to cornerback

It is the wrong time of year to be hanging a HELP WANTED sign in front of the building if you are an NFL team and you’re looking for some help at cornerback.

The Chicago Bears are believed to be monitoring what is available at the position. They’re not actively shopping but will assess any possibilities that could provide some competition and perhaps an upgrade on a roster that needs one.

As Dan Pompei of the Chicago Tribune reports, the Bears feel good about what they have in terms of starters with Charles Tillman and Zack Bowman. As we noted here last weekend, the Bears have flip-flopped Tillman and Bowman, ostensibly making the younger Bowman their top corner now on the left side. That’s subject to change, but it’s how they spent the entire minicamp.

It’s what the Bears had to evaluate elsewhere at the position that made the ranks look thin. They have an issue right now because there isn’t a No. 3 cornerback that sticks out at you. In fact, there might not be a No. 3, instead a collection of No. 5’s. With Tillman and Bowman both having injuries in their pasts, that makes it a tricky proposition for Chicago.

Tim Jennings, signed in free agency in March, got the most look as the third corner. Keep in mind, the Indianapolis Colts chose not to tender him as a restricted free agent and Bill Polian isn’t one to regularly let talent walk out the door. Jennings is very small – he’s about 5-8 – and that is the same problem the club has with D.J. Moore, a fourth-round pick in 2009. While a candidate for the under 5-9 basketball league, Moore doesn’t look the part of an every-down corner in the NFL and worse he struggled to carve out a niche for himself on special teams last season.

Corey Graham is currently getting work at the nickel position, along with Moore. Graham got plenty of playing time in 2008 and then fell out of favor after defensive backs coach Jon Hoke arrived. Two intriguing possibilities are Woodny Turenne, the undrafted player from Louisville who spent most of last season on the practice squad, and Josh Moore, the fifth-round pick this season from Kansas State. Both have decent size but could take some seasoning to truly be ready.

Every team is going to have issues with depth somewhere on their roster. From the outside looking in, the Bears have a host of questions at cornerback after the starting two. Whether or not they add anyone to the mix remains to be seen. There isn’t much to pick from at this time. Cornerbacks, especially those with size, are a commodity. The Bears real hope here is that Tillman and Bowman remain healthy.

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Does DeMarco Murray’s game translate to NFL?

As our own Dave Miller wrote on Friday, Oklahoma head coach Bob Stoops would like to see RB DeMarco Murray hit 1,900 yards rushing in 2010, a tall task for a guy who has rushed for more than 1,000 yards just once in his career. However, we’re not here to try and figure out if Murray can hit the 1,900-yard rushing mark as a senior. We want to figure out what kind of running back he can be at the next level.

The breakdown

There’s no doubt Murray can be a dynamic playmaker with the football in his hands once he gets into the open field. He possesses a great initial first step when asked to press daylight, gets up to speed very quickly and showcases impressive balance when accelerating around the corner. When healthy, the guy has the initial burst to consistently outrun angles in space and create yards by the chunk.

However, playing in Oklahoma’s spread offense, Murray is given the luxury of consistently running against seven man fronts – at most — and isn’t often responsible for making a defender miss behind the line. So more often than not, he’s asked to press the outside on perimeter runs and use his natural speed to out-pace defenders to space and/or turn up the field. However, what becomes clearly obvious when watching Murray try to break down is that he’s consistently forced to gear down, slow his feet and regain his balance before accelerating up field. And the main culprit for that is his overall pad level. Murray runs too high both inside and in the open field and doesn’t display the type of body control needed to clean change directions or break tackles through contact.

Too often on tape you see Murray quickly pick up a head of steam pressing a hole inside, only to be tripped up and tackled by the fingertips of a defender closing on the play from the backside.

However, the result of Murray’s high pad level doesn’t stop there. You can directly correlate the consistent string of injuries he sustains year in and year out to the massive amount of pounding his body absorbs. Like any running back, it’s not always how hard you run but how little contact your frame absorbs. NFL running backs generally have to run behind their pads in order to expose as little of their frames as possible when asked to take on defenders and run between the tackles. And although Murray generates a ton of initial acceleration attacking the line, he simply shows too much of his body to defenders, which makes him much more vulnerable to bigger, injury-inducing hits (see Justin Fargas).

Plus, the fact that he’s overly instinctive in tight areas brings us to the conclusion that maybe he isn’t cut out to be an every-down, inside-the-tackles-type option in the NFL.

So where does that leave him in terms of NFL potential? Well, besides the impressive speed and acceleration in the open field, he does have the ability to consistently catch the football out of the backfield and can also create mismatches when split out in the slot. Also, the guy does have a little shimmy to his game once he gets up to full speed in the open field and knows how to give a slight shoulder fake to a defender and explode into daylight. He also displays a willingness to block in the pass game, and although he isn’t real physical and struggles with leverage, he does possess the body control to stick his head in and chop down defenders on contact.

Overall, I think Murray projects ideally as third-down type of back who you can split out in the pass game, flick the ball to out of the backfield and work on special teams as a return man. He should also be able to gouge some big plays in the draw and screen game and definitely has some value as playmaking-type sub-package option in the NFL.

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Key deadline fast approaching for unsigned RFA's

The Miami Dolphins veered from the norm and opted to host a minicamp on Memorial Day weekend when the rest of the NFL is taking it easy.

The Minnesota Vikings will hold their minicamp June 11-13 and the word to this point is that defensive end Ray Edwards, snared in the labor battle as a restricted free agent who any other year would have been unrestricted, will not attend.

It’s a mandatory minicamp but the key is it is only mandatory to players under contract. Edwards has not signed his tender as a restricted free agent and may opt to stay away without facing a fine.

But business will get going again Tuesday as the calendar turns to June and we’ll see how far the unsigned RFA’s want to take things. A key date is fast approaching for them. On June 15, teams can reduce the offer of the one-year tender to 110 percent of the player’s 2009 base salary. In many instances, that means the new offer will be less than half of the current offer. If players really want to push their case, maybe they’ll go that far. In Edwards' case, he could skip minicamp and then sign his tender just before the June 15 deadline. He probably wouldn't have to do all that to let the Vikings know he's upset with his situation. Just guessing.

Here is an unofficial sampling of some RFA’s from the NFC who have yet to sign tenders:

Dallas: WR Miles Austin
Green Bay: S Atari Bigby, DE Johnny Jolly, CB Tramon Williams
New Orleans: OT Jammal Brown, S Roman Harper, WR Lance Moore, RB Pierre Thomas
Tampa Bay: OT Donald Penn
Washington: LB Rocky McIntosh, CB Carlos Rogers

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Burleson could be key to unlocking passing game in Motown

Intent on watching quarterback Matthew Stafford and wide receiver Calvin Johnson take the next step, the Detroit Lions focused on some new pieces for the offense this offseason.

Most notable, perhaps, was the trade up to select Cal running back Jahvid Best. The plan is for him to win the starting job and if Kevin Smith can return healthy it will make for an interesting 1-2 pairing.

The Lions also made another move aimed at building the offense when they picked up veteran tight end Tony Scheffler in a bargain deal from Denver. Not only can he be a mentor for young Brandon Pettigrew, he can carry the load if Pettigrew is slowed at all recovering from a torn ACL last year.

But most significant – at least for the passing game – is probably the signing of wide receiver Nate Burleson to a $25 million, five-year contract. It’s more money than many imagined Burleson would land, but if he keeps opposing defenses honest – or somewhat honest – he’ll prove to be worth every penny. The Lions haven’t had a reliable target opposite Johnson and that hurt him last season when he had 67 receptions for 984 yards and five touchdowns. Granted, he wasn’t healthy the entire season and he did miss two games, but it was a drop off from 2008 when he made 78 catches for 1,331 yards and 12 touchdowns. Defenses focused on shutting him down and did so without fearing anyone else.

As Tom Kowalski of MLive.com points out, that is where Burleson comes in. He’s got a knack for getting open right off the line of scrimmage and coach Jim Schwartz has praised him for his open-field ability. Make a man miss near the line of scrimmage and Burleson can go a long way.

The Lions have to be able to take advantage of the opposition’s No. 2 cornerback and the hope is that Burleson will make that possible. He’s had only one 1,000-yard season, in 2004 in Minnesota, but if he can catch 60 or more balls for the Lions, it will be a good thing for Stafford and quite possibly Johnson. Defenses will have to honor Burleson and with the package of tight ends, it could lead to more honest man-to-man coverage for Johnson. It’s not going to happen often, but if the defense it working to shut down Johnson, Stafford has to have some other options.

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They're tightening the belt in Carolina

It’s hard to say if there is a good place to be for players looking to get paid right now.

The top talents in unrestricted free agency hit it big and meanwhile money has been hard to come by elsewhere. Sure, Patrick Willis got a big extension in San Francisco. Jahri Evans hit the jackpot in New Orleans. But those signings and similar ones are the exceptions this offseason.

Especially in a place like Carolina where the Panthers chopped payroll in a big way this offseason. The Panthers have some players waiting to be paid too. Linebackers Jon Beason and Thomas Davis are looking for new deals. Running back DeAngelo Williams and cornerback Richard Marshall would also like some new paper. Sooner rather than later.

As Darin Gantt detailed in the Charlotte Observer, the Panthers have been notoriously proactive under general manager Marty Hurney, getting deals done early with players to make them happy and ultimately maybe save the organization a few bucks down the road. The philosophy is pretty simple. Reward your own early and you set an example of how business will be done and what players can strive for in the locker room. But the Panthers have shed big contracts this offseason, cutting quarterback Jake Delhomme and watching defensive end Julius Peppers depart via free agency. There hasn’t been a lot of movement the other direction.

The widespread belief is that Panthers owner Jerry Richardson is taking a hard-line stance with labor uncertainty, anxious to be one of the clubs setting an example for the rest of the league.

“This year, more than any I’ve ever seen, the business is rearing its head,” left tackle Jordan Gross told Gantt. “With Mr. Richardson being at the spot he’s at in the negotiating team and all that, I think he’s got to walk the walk and talk the talk. And he’s doing that.”

Per the report, Carolina has been in the top half of the league in payroll five times in the last 10 years. Only two times have they been below 22nd. It looks they’re headed in that direction.

Richardson doesn’t respond directly, but he is quoted in a team-owned publication, “Roar Magazine.” Per Steve Reed of CarolinaGrowl.com, Richardson said letting longtime players go this offseason was “extremely difficult.”

“We were at a point with our football team that we had to make some tough football decisions, which were separate of the CBA,” Richardson said. “We have a number of younger players who showed promise at the end of last season and need to get on the field.”

“We feel recent drafts have been productive and have players for those positions where changes were made. There are no guarantees going into any season. We saw that last year when we had 21 of 22 starters returning. I think players like Steve Smith, DeAngelo Williams, and Jonathan Stewart, plus a good offensive line, provide a lot of opportunity on offense and Jon Beason, Thomas Davis, and Chris Gamble on defense form a good core of players to build around.”

Good core to build around? Sure. But not a core the Panthers wanted to do much to augment in free agency. The Panthers do have some nice young players. The risk they run in not extending players early is that they will lose them in free agency or be forced to play the franchise tag game like they did with Peppers.

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The clock is ticking on Haynesworth

Last week, new Washington Redskins defensive coordinator Jim Haslett discussed the ongoing absence of defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth, telling the Washington Post, “It’s not right. It’s just the way it is.”

Classic coach speak, but very truthful. However, something that needs to be examined is the actual amount of time Haynesworth is missing in the classroom and on the field — in teaching sessions.

If Jim Zorn were still running OTAs and voluntary minicamps out in northern Virginia, I wouldn’t see this as a story. The club would hope that Haynesworth would eventually show up on time for training camp — preferably in football shape — and assume his role as a 3-technique defensive tackle in Washington’s 4-3 front under former defensive coordinator Greg Blache.

Except, Mike Shanahan is running the show now, the ‘Skins are transitioning to a 3-4 front and new defensive scheme under Haslett, and when Haynesworth does finally decide to show up, he will be as worthless as a rookie when it comes to the playbook.

I have written about OTAs before, and I am not a big fan of calling out players for missing sessions. But when a new system and playbook is installed in the spring, act like a pro and do your job. Why? Because coaches don’t want to waste valuable meeting time during training camp. NFL coaches are always looking forward, so having to go back and sit down — with a veteran of all people — and teach him the playbook in August?

Get real. That is standard procedure for rookie first-round holdouts that show up late with a new check in their pockets. Not a player that is already under contract.

But, that is exactly what is going to happen in Washington if Haynesworth continues to stay away — because the Redskins don’t have any other options.

Haslett hit on this when he talked about the “individual time and work” it will cause when the DT finally shows up. What the former Rams head coach is describing is assigning a position coach — or Haslett himself — to use the time in between practices, at night after position meetings, and during the small amount of free time (which is about one hour a day) to sit down and teach their big-money DT how to line up, how to take on blocks and where he fits in the run front.

And, those are just the basics of this system, which were taught on the first day of the offseason program.
More importantly, this could have an effect on the entire defense. There is nothing that rubs a veteran worse than seeing one of his teammates continually bust on the field. We aren’t talking about guys making plays, but instead, playing within the scheme of the defense — or accountability.

We all know that Haynesworth wants out of Washington. But, do you see any way that happens? Probably not, and these two are stuck with each other for what looks like at least one more season in 2010.

Haynesworth can be a dominant player in any defensive front. But, if he struggles to catch up with the rest of his teammates this August when it comes to the actual defense he is playing in, he will make everyone take a step back.

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Pat Summerall knows how treacherous N.Y. weather can be

For the time being, I promise this is the last post about the weather for a game that is nearly four years away. I don’t know about yours, but my meteorologist can’t get tomorrow’s weather right, so why worry about the weather in New York on a Sunday in February 2014?

Count Pat Summerall as someone who is hoping a blizzard doesn’t blow through New York for Super Bowl XLVIII. He doesn’t want weather to play a heavy hand in deciding the game or have the championship remembered for Mother Nature more than the action itself.

It’s surprising maybe considering Summerall kicked one of the most famous field goals in New York Giants history. Playing at Yankee Stadium in 1958, Summerall booted a 48-yarder in a driving snowstorm to lead the Giants to a 13-10 victory and forge a first-place tie that eventually helped the team get to the championship game that season, one they lost to the Baltimore Colts. No Summerall kick in the driving snow, no Greatest Game Ever Played, right?

Summerall has seen the havoc the wind can play at the old Giants Stadium and fears the one built across the parking lot will have just as many tricks to it.

“I've seen games in the cold, windy weather in old Giants Stadium where it was almost impossible to kick a field goal and impossible to throw the ball,” Summerall told Gary Myers of the New York Daily News. “I understand this stadium faces the opposite direction of the old one.”

That means the wind won’t react the same way as it did in the old stadium but it still could be very much a factor. When the Bears reconstructed Soldier Field and made the stadium higher on all sides, it created more wind for kickers and punters to deal with. On bad Sundays at the old Giants Stadium, it was difficult to throw the ball, let alone kick it. A Super Bowl in which neither team can throw the ball is not something the NFL is looking for when it voted last week to play Super Bowl XLVIII in New York.

“I hate to see weather be a factor in the game,” Summerall. “I'm glad New York got the Super Bowl. There is no place to play like New York. But I'm sorry the outcome of the game might depend upon the weather.”

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Lions' Jon Jansen will begin writing column

Jon Jansen isn’t ready to hang ’em up yet, having re-signed with the Detroit Lions back in March for another one-year contract.

But he’s still ready to pick up the pen, or the laptop as the case may be, and embark on a writing adventure for the Detroit Free Press. The offensive lineman will pen a column for the newspaper this year.

Jansen has done television work before, helping in ESPN’s draft coverage. This is a different media spectrum for him, one he’ll be playing not far from his hometown of Clawson, Mich. It’s being from the area and having played in college at Michigan that led to Jansen picking the Lions – the 0-16 Lions – within hours of being released by the Washington Redskins, who offered him an opportunity to retire after a decorated run with the organization.

“Plenty of people across the state of Michigan can attest that no matter what the circumstances are, when you lose your job, it is very personal for you and your family,” Jansen wrote.

“What started out to be one of the worst days of my professional career would end as one of my bright spots. As with anything that comes to an end, something new must begin. I began the day as a Washington Redskin and finished the day a Detroit Lion.

“I did contemplate retirement, but as I looked into my future I knew I still had too much football left to play and so much I still wanted to accomplish on the football field. The moment I had made my decision to keep playing I called my agent and told him to contact the Lions. I signed a contract soon afterward.”

Jansen has seen a lot in 11 seasons in the league. Heck, he was teammates with the National Football Post’s Matt Bowen for a stretch in Washington. His columns should be worth following, especially if the Lions can build incrementally on the progress they made with Jim Schwartz last season when they climbed out of the losing funk with a first victory over Jansen’s former Redskins.

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