Updated: October 26, 2012, 9:58 PM ET
Joe Robbins/Getty ImagesLouisville coach Charlie Strong has the Cardinals atop the Big East thanks in large part to his recruiting efforts, especially in Florida.

Louisville finds success in uncertain Big East

By Mitch Sherman
ESPN RecruitingNation

Maybe you lost interest in Big East football in 2005, when eight-win Pittsburgh landed in the Fiesta Bowl and lost by four touchdowns to Utah. Or when Miami, Virginia Tech and Boston College bolted to the ACC.

If so, you're excused. The league has looked like a mess for the better part of a decade, with other painful departures -- West Virginia is now in the Big 12, and Syracuse and Pittsburgh will join the ACC next summer -- and odd newcomers aplenty.

Coming soon to a Big East venue near you: Boise State, San Diego State, Central Florida, SMU, Houston, Navy and Memphis. That is, if they don't back out, like TCU, before playing a game.

You could argue it's a crumbling football conference -- and that the identity crisis has affected the ability of member institutions to attract top prospects. Since 2008, no Big East program has signed a recruiting class ranked in the top 20 nationally.

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Jamie Rhodes/US PresswireLouisville star quarterback Teddy Bridgewater was one of three ESPN 150 prospects who signed with the Cardinals in 2011.

Over that period, SEC schools have signed 34 top-20 classes, while ACC programs have inked 20.

Good reason, then, to write off the entire Big East? Well, Rutgers and Louisville remain among the nation's 11 unbeatens. And look closely at the Cardinals, who are 7-0 and ranked No. 16 as Cincinnati visits Papa John's Cardinal Stadium on Friday night at 8 ET on ESPN.

Third-year coach Charlie Strong and his staff have used extensive connections in the state of Florida to paddle against the current and construct a team that won't sink amid the Big East undertow.

A team built to succeed in any conference to which the fast-moving current of college football might carry it.

The Louisville roster includes 34 Floridians, headlined by standout sophomore quarterback Teddy Bridgewater of Miami Northwestern.

The good vibe extends to Kentucky, from which 36 players appear on the Louisville roster. Eight are former walk-ons who earned scholarships, including three from national power Louisville (Ky.) Trinity -- ranked No. 2 this week in the ESPN 25 Power Rankings.

"Just win," said Trinity coach Bob Beatty, who's also sent the likes of star quarterback Brian Brohm to Louisville. "You know, that's the No. 1 factor. If you win here, people are into it. People talk about Louisville as a basketball town, but they've embraced football before. And they'll embrace it now."

For the record, it is a basketball town in a basketball state. Rick Pitino's group opens soon with a No. 2 ranking in the coaches' poll. Eighty miles east, Lexington, Ky., is, of course, the ultimate hoops hotbed.

Despite the pull toward basketball and the temptation to tune out Big East football, Louisville continues to make strides.

Strong's first full recruiting class in 2011 featured Bridgewater, receiver Eli Rogers (also of Miami Northwestern) and safety Gerod Holliman of Miami Southridge, all ESPN 150 prospects. The class ranked 22nd nationally, the best placement by a Big East team since 2009.

Hidden in that 2011 class is receiver DeVante Parker of Louisville's Ballard High School. He has flourished with the Cardinals, and is evidence of the program's ability to effectively mix home and away in recruiting.

Among Louisville's nine commitments this year, Lexington (Ky.) Catholic quarterback Kyle Bolin ranks 29th nationally as a pocket passer. He spurned Kentucky for Louisville, committing more than a year ago.

"I like the fact that they're a little bit different than other schools," Bolin said. "I had a good idea that success this year would come. And I knew they would be very successful in coming years."

The Cardinals remain in pursuit of hometown star James Quick, a receiver from Beatty's Trinity program and the No. 57 prospect in the ESPN 150. Quick, whose father played at Louisville, said he considers the Cardinals among his favorites with Ohio State, Oregon and Tennessee.

Bolin I like the fact that they're a little bit different than other schools. I had a good idea that success this year would come.

-- Louisville QB commit Kyle Bolin

He'll be there Friday night on the south end of the Cardinals' metropolitan campus.

"I'm impressed with how they're playing and the way Teddy's throwing the ball," Quick said. "It really interests me."

A recruiting score the size of Quick would go a long way at Louisville.

"We don't have as many players as they do in Texas and Florida," Beatty said. "But when you're Louisville and you have a chance at one, you sure don't want him to leave."

Remember, this is the program that won 11 games under John L. Smith in 2001 and won the Orange Bowl five years later with Bobby Petrino in command. But under Steve Kragthorpe, the Cardinals sank to the bottom of the Big East, winning just two league games total in 2008 and 2009.

They've shown in advancing back this far that the specter of a crumbling conference need not loom large if recruits can focus on something more tangible. More heartening.

"We get that question from recruits," Louisville linebackers coach Brian Jean-Mary said of the negativity that surrounds the future of Big East football. "They hear all the noise, but we tell them we can't control what's going on around us. We worry about the football part of it.

"Coach Strong says it best: Let's just put a great product on the field. The rest will take care of itself."

Senior receiver Andrell Smith, for instance, tells Quick he would have a spot next year to catch passes from Bridgewater.

Lots of players and coaches say that. Louisville does it.

In Strong's three seasons, 28 true freshmen have played. Ten have started on defense.

Five made starts on the defensive line, coached by Clint Hurtt. Hurtt, who played and coached at Miami, also serves as recruiting coordinator. In 2011, he was named national recruiter of the year by ESPN.com.

Strong came to Louisville from Florida, where he coordinated the defense from 2003 to '09 and won two national titles with Urban Meyer.

Defensive coordinator Vance Bedford coached the secondary at Florida under Strong. Running backs coach Kenny Carter directed the same position at Florida. Receivers coach Ron Dugans played at Florida State. Jean-Mary played high school football in Apopka, Fla.

"Kids here buy into those coaches," Miami Central coach Telly Lockette said. "They're great character guys. They're credible guys.

"Teddy Bridgewater is putting Dade County football on the map. Other programs wanted him to play receiver, but Louisville gave him this opportunity."

Lockette sent receiver Charles Gaines, a redshirt freshman, and sophomore left guard John Miller to Louisville. Both are starting this year.

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Tom Hauck for ESPN.comLouisville hopes it can land hometown star and ESPN 150 receiver James Quick.

Often, Lockette said, Florida high school players who go unwanted by Miami, Florida and Florida State leave the state with a chip on their shoulder. Even if it's not something they discuss in college, the Floridians who land at Louisville relate to each other.

"I had an instant connection," said Orange Park (Fla.) Fleming Island linebacker Donel Elam, who committed to Louisville in February and is the nephew of Florida star Matt Elam.

Bolin, the quarterback from Lexington, could have picked the dominance and security of SEC football over Louisville. Kentucky moved to offer him a scholarship only as Bolin prepared to commit to Louisville. The signal-caller required a few minutes to consider it and say no to UK.

Like the Florida players, Bolin felt a connection. He enjoyed the Louisville environment as a whole. Sure, the community supports a winner, as Beatty, the Trinity coach, suggested. But Bolin said he also discovered a positive energy that permeated the fans, coaching staff, players and Louisville athletic department.

While visiting campus last winter, Bolin said he was impressed to meet athletic director Tom Jurich. Jurich, regarded as a savvy leader, spoke to a group of recruits. Right then, Bolin said, any concerns about future conference alignment disappeared.

Other recruits feel it, too. Even as Louisville moves against the current, somewhere, there's a safe harbor ahead.

"It's the whole place," Bolin said. "It gives you a good feeling about what's coming next."


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