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April 22, 2008

English out to fix Louisville defense

MORE: Cantwell ready for opportunity | Louisville spring preview

LOUISVILLE, Ky. New coordinator Ron English needed only one meeting to impose his no-nonsense personality on his Louisville defense. He stood in front of his players with an attention-demanding scowl.

"Sit up," English told his defense. "Look me in the eyes when I'm talking."

It wouldn't be the last thing he'd demand of his defense, but it was a powerful first impression.

"You knew he was the real deal," free safety Bobby Buchanan said.

Louisville's defense will take all the help it can get after a disastrous 2007 that saw the Cardinals' bowl streak end at nine games. Louisville was a preseason top-10 selection and a trendy pick to win the Big East. Instead, the Cardinals finished 6-6. Much of the blame could be put on a frown-inducing defense that ranked last or next-to-last in the league in most categories.

Second-year coach Steve Kragthorpe replaced his entire defensive staff, retaining only former line coach Mark Nelson - who now is special teams coach.

Kragthorpe's biggest coup in his defensive makeover may have been landing English, Rivals.com's defensive coordinator of the year in 2006 before leaving Michigan with the rest of Lloyd Carr's staff after the '07 season.

Once English arrived on campus, he brought instant credibility and intensity. He and the rest of the new defensive staff spent the spring hounding players step-by-step, stressing fundamentals and technique.

"We just wanted to make sure the players understood what we would ask from them," said English, who also was pursued by UCLA and Washington during the offseason. "We were very direct in that regard."

It's a good thing English brings a hands-on approach to Louisville; the Cardinals need the molding. Seven opponents scored at least 38 points against Louisville, and not all were offensive juggernauts Middle Tennessee, Kentucky, Syracuse, Utah, West Virginia, South Florida and Rutgers.

The low points came early. In the third week of the season, a breakdown in the secondary allowed Steve Johnson to catch a 57-yard touchdown pass in the final 1:09 to win the game for rival Kentucky. A week later, Syracuse rolled up 465 yards of offense for one of its two wins in 2008.

"We weren't in sync as a defense," said Buchanan, Louisville's returning leading tackler. "We didn't go into games as prepared as we should. We were out there playing with effort instead of confidence.

"You need confidence as a defense. I don't feel like we played with confidence last year."

Kragthorpe hopes English's confidence and leadership rubs off on the defense because experience and depth will be at a premium.

Only four starters Buchanan, defensive lineman Earl Heyman, defensive end L.D. Scott and cornerback Woodny Turenne return this season. That's equal to the amount of probable starters who have left the program under different circumstances.

Ron English has some work to do with a Louisville defense that was in a word horrible last season. Here are some key stats and how the Cardinals ranked in the Big East and nationally:
Run defense: 165.3 ypg, seventh in Big East, 73rd nationally
Pass defense: 251.2 ypg, sixth in Big East, 88th nationally
Total defense: 416.5 ypg, seventh in Big East, 85th nationally
Scoring defense: 31.4 ppg, seventh in Big East, 92nd nationally
Sacks: 17 total, seventh in Big East, tied for 102nd nationally
Linebacker Willie Williams was dismissed in September after a drug arrest. The career of defensive end Peanut Whitehead, the star of Louisville's 2006 signing class, ended after he was diagnosed with spinal stenosis in November. Linebacker Lamar Myles, the team's leading tackler, entered the NFL Draft after his junior season but is projected as a late second-day pick at best. Finally, in February, cornerback Rod Council was dismissed after he was arrested for armed robbery.

The numbers crunch forced Louisville to sign six junior college defensive players. The Cardinals also have added linebacker James Bryant, a transfer from Miami.

English isn't interested in talking about the players who are gone or the problems from 2007, for that matter.

"I really get into coaching the guys that are here," English said. "It happens all the time guys leave and other guys step up. It's the way it works in football. We have lost guys for various reasons, but our focus is on the guys that are here. We're trying to build enough guys to be a quality defense."

Louisville will lean on Heyman, a fifth-year senior who can play end and tackle. Kragthorpe said Turenne, a five-star junior college transfer who struggled last season, has been among the top players in spring camp.

Still, English has a lot of work to do. In one scrimmage early this spring, the defense allowed two 99-yard scoring drives, prompting English to say it was "hard to be positive" about the defense.

By the spring game, there was reason for optimism. Despite missing about a dozen players because of injury, the defense had a solid showing, stopping the offense from scoring on three of the first five drives.

It may take time, but quarterback Hunter Cantwell already has seen a change.

"They're playing real fast and flying around," Cantwell said. "They're playing with a lot more intensity than we saw last year. In practice, (offensive players) don't really want to see that out of your defense, but in games it's going to be great for us."

MORE: Cantwell ready for opportunity | Louisville spring preview

David Fox is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at dfox@rivals.com.

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