When assistant coach Clint Hurtt began his first spring practice three years ago, he was terrified at what he had to work with on the defensive line. Terrified might be a little strong, but there was trepidation. There was no experience and depth upfront, and no leaders to count on.
Last year, the Cardinals had built a little more depth, but were still raw. However, the Cardinals had talent, and it showed early on in the year. But, as the season progressed, injuries mounted, and the Cardinals were fortunate to finish the season with their front intact.
As Hurtt enters his third year, the Cardinals are experienced and talented on the defensive line, but still a little thin at some positions. As Hurtt and the Cardinals put a bow on spring practice, the Cardinals are still searching for answers and depth heading into an important 2012 season.
“I feel like the defensive line has really progressed,” said defensive line coach Clint Hurtt. “I feel like they have done a lot of good things. Brandon Dunn has really changed his body. He has dropped some weight and has been really productive, and has really improved from last year. He and Marcus Smith have really made tremendous strides, as has B.J. Dubose. I’m proud of them as a group. Our second group of defensive tackles in Hunter Stout and Dominique Dishmon have gone out and competed and given what they had. We have done a good job. There have been some runs that have been popped in the two scrimmages. As a front seven, we have to get on the same page and understand its always one or two people. We have to correct some of those mistakes.”
Hurtt is a coach who demands effort and expects perfection, and doesn’t make excuses for his group. Because of the physicality of the play on the defensive line, the Cardinals are usually one of the most banged up units on the team. This spring, injuries haven’t been as bad, but are still missing one of their best players in junior tackle Roy Philon.
The 6-foot-3 run stopper had a tremendous season a year ago, recording 36 tackles, which was highest among the defensive linemen. However, Philon is out all spring with a back ailment.
“We try not to dwell on the negative,” said Hurtt. “Does it hurt us not to have Roy Philon this spring, absolutely. He is arguably our best defensive linemen, but it’s given (Brandon) Dunn and Jamaine Brooks a chance to get a lot more reps in there, and allow them to continue to develop. It has allowed us to work Marcus Smith in there at the 3-technique. I’m proud of these guys. We have started to grow up and have grown up as a unit.”
Another player who made major strides last season was junior Marcus Smith. A converted quarterback who played linebacker in his first year, was moved to defensive end during fall camp last season. Despite never playing the position, Smith led the Cardinals in sacks with 5.5 and was a force in passing situations.
“He has taken another step,” Hurtt said. “Last year, we had high expectations for him as we do for all our kids. But he made some freshmen mistakes in terms of a freshman playing the defensive line. It was new for him. He didn’t play as fast because he didn’t trust his eyes and what he saw. He didn’t understand what the down and distances were to go get the QB, which is his strength. He has turned the corner on that this spring. He has gotten so much better. I’m proud of him.”
The Cardinals are preparing for the Annual Red-White game on Saturday at 1 p.m. and another spring comes to a close. Louisville, who returns 10 starters on defense, still have a long way to go to continue its climb up the rankings.
“We need to understand their fits in the run game,” said Hurtt. “Being good in stopping the run is all about understanding what are their responsibilities, and making sure we fit those things right. Our first year we gave up 145 yards rushing a game. This past year, we dropped to 100 yards a game. Our goal as a defense is to keep people below 100 yards a game. We have to give credit to the offense too. Senorise Perry, Dominique Brown and Jeremy Wright are doing a great job of running behind their pads. As a football team, we are getting a lot better, but we need to do a better job at times.”
As the Cardinals begin their third season under head coach Charlie Strong, expectations are at level not seen since the 2007 season. Coming off a BIG EAST Championship and with 18 starters back, the Cardinals are the front runners to repeat. However, Hurtt and the rest of the staff understand that those are high expectations, but are only predictions. There is still a lot of work that needs to be done.
“We don’t need to worry about expectations,” said Hurtt. “We need to play. All the expectations are fine. We were picked last the first two years we were in here. We don’t worry about that. We have to buckle up and go play. We have to practice. You have to prepare and do all the things necessary to be a champion. No matter what people say about how bad you may be or how good you maybe, you have to prepare the same way every time. Our mind set won’t change on that, and our coaching staff won’t change on that message that’s delivered to the kids. All the accolades and the press clippings, we ignore all that.”