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Charlie Strong should be Ole Miss’ No. 1 target, here’s why

The head man at South Florida would be a home run for Ross Bjork.

NCAA Football: South Florida at Tulane Stephen Lew-USA TODAY Sports

Ole Miss is in a prime position to make a splash hire before we hit December. The only thing standing in the way is a favorable punishment handed down by the NCAA’s Committee on Infractions and that could come any day now. Hopefully.

With that said, it is paramount that they receive said “punishment” and hit the ground running before jobs like Tennessee, Auburn, Texas A&M, Mississippi State, and Arkansas all possibly open up. But, maybe Ole Miss already has their sights set on a particular candidate that might entertain only one of those jobs.

Enter Charlie Strong.

The South Florida head coach has done a phenomenal job in year one in Tampa, guiding the Bulls to an 8-1 record and a second place standing in the American East behind undefeated and 18th ranked UCF. But, he could be looking to make a jump back into the Power 5 picture since he will be losing 25 seniors after this season is completed, including his talented, do-it-all quarterback Quinton Flowers.

Enter Ole Miss.

It’s no secret that Strong is a big name in coaching circles. His name was floated around a lot last year when things opened up at certain schools for a defensive coordinator role, one being Ole Miss. Rumors swirled about him getting back into the fold somewhere, maybe parlay it into an eventual head coach gig so he can be in a big-time conference again. But, he stayed put at USF. So now with prominent SEC jobs potentially opening up left and right, he could be peeking over his shoulder again. Maybe he’s squinting at Oxford, Miss. We certainly hope so.

Here are the reasons why we think Strong to Ole Miss is the choice Ross Bjork should make.

He would bring instant credibility.

First off, the man has coached at Power 5 programs everywhere. He’s had stints at Louisville, Texas, Florida, Ole Miss, Notre Dame, South Carolina, and now at Group of 5 “power” South Florida. He averaged nine wins in four years at Louisville. And this was Big East/AAC Louisville, not ACC Louisville. His last two years he went 11-2 and 12-1, winning one conference title and a Sugar Bowl over a top 5 Florida team. And he didn’t just win there, he recruited extremely well. He focused most of his efforts in Florida, a place he had just departed and still has strong ties to to this day, and he made an instant splash in the Bluegrass State.

His first class, he signed three four-stars (two from Florida) and finished 44th nationally. His second class, he signed two four-stars, and one happened to be Teddy Bridgewater from Miami Northwestern. His signature was program-changing for the Cardinals and Strong and that class finished 27th nationally. In his third class, he brought in three more four-stars and finished 45th nationally. His final class was solid once again, three more four-stars, and a top 40 finish.

After leaving Louisville, he went through some rough years at Texas as their head coach. Most of you know by now that all of the blame should not be shouldered by Strong. It just wasn’t a good fit for the administration and you couple that with Strong’s inability to find a quarterback and it was doomed. But, maybe that job isn’t what it used to be, hence Tom Herman’s struggles this season.

The point remains, Strong has street cred that goes a long ways in the coaching profession. He was a masterful defensive coordinator for two Urban Meyer title teams in Gainesville, has built a program up at Louisville, and has learned how to adapt as a head coach (hired Sterlin Gilbert in 2016) to correct his past mistakes. Bjork told the Clarion-Ledger that he wants a coach “who has seen it at the highest level...somebody who has an identity of what they want to bring to the program and they’re very consistent in that identity.”

Check and check.

Strong’s defenses have been remarkable over time.

We have discussed this at length on this web site, but you cannot win for long periods of time in the SEC without a good defense. It’s just not going to work. Hugh Freeze can attest to that now that the rotten fruits of his non-labor are showing poorly for the second year in a row. Charlie on the other hand has always been one to recruit at a high level on that side of the football and has put together units that were incredible.

At Louisville, his defenses finished 14th, 23rd, 23rd, and 1st nationally in total defense respectively. His 2013 unit finished 7th in S&P+ defense rankings, including 28th in rushing and 9th defending the pass. Despite his struggles in wins and losses, his defenses finished 8th, 62nd, and 60th in S&P+ rankings.

After leaving Texas, his current stint in Tampa is back to business as usual. Before Strong, now Oregon head coach Willie Taggart had the Bulls’ defense sitting 110th nationally in S&P+ rankings. Now with Charlie’s influence, along with defensive coordinator Brian Jean-Mary, they are now 17th(!). Decent jump if you ask me.

Hugh Freeze showed you can win and recruit big at Ole Miss. Charlie will follow suit.

Get the jokes out now. Go ahead. But, regardless of how lackluster Hugh was at obtaining a flip phone to handle all his endeavors off the field, he still showed that it is possible to recruit blue-chip players to Ole Miss and win with them. And big. Every single year he was witnessing to folks on campus at Ole Miss, his win total grew by one and his recruiting classes were something that Ole Miss had never experienced before. Ever. He’s famous for being one of three coaches in the SEC to beat Nick Saban and he’s the only one to do it twice. Do with that what you will, but the feat is impressive.

In comes Charlie Strong, a man about crootin town who is quite the elephant hunter himself. And he does it all over. While at Louisville, the bulk of his classes came from out-of-state hot beds like Georgia (11), Ohio (6), and Florida (35). When he was at Texas, he obviously recruited the Lone Star State hard (59), but he also had a presence in Louisiana (8), Florida (7), and even California (2). This doesn’t automatically mean it’ll happen like this for Ole Miss, but he has recruited all over and has developed relationships with high school coaches all over, most notably in Florida where the Rebels already recruit a ton.

Now when it comes to recruiting at a high level inside your own conference, Charlie has done a fantastic job there as well. During his last two gigs, he has been at the top of the conference. At Texas, he finished 2nd in the Big 12 in 2014 and 1st in 2015 and 2016. And in his lone season at UCF, the Bulls are sitting at 2nd in the AAC. Freeze never finished higher than 3rd and his other classes averaged a finish of 8th in the SEC.

Granted, things are different in the SEC West where Saban has had the nation’s No. 1 class every single year he’s been the coach at Alabama except one and LSU recruits nationally and does so very well despite having a fan boat captain as their head coach. With that said, Charlie has the chops and the staff to go out and get some blue-chippers.

His staff is solid and experienced.

It’s never a guarantee that the entire staff will follow, but the one he has at South Florida currently is pretty damn stacked. If he were to keep his coordinators and a few key assistants, it would be a huge coup for Bjork and Ole Miss. So let’s see who would be the prime candidates that Ole Miss would want Strong to bring with him.

Sterlin Gilbert - Offensive coordinator

Gilbert joined Strong’s staff at Texas in 2016. All he did in one year was turn true freshman and former four-star quarterback Shane Buechele into a 2,958 yard passer and 21 touchdown tosser. Not to be outdone, he also worked a downhill run game approach into his spread offense that was a key cog in D’Onta Foreman toting the rock for 2,028 yards and 15 touchdowns, helping him win the Doak Walker Award for best running back in the country.

He also operates as USF’s quarterbacks coach and he has done wonders with Quinton Flowers this season. In Gilbert’s run-heavy spread, Flowers has thrown for 1,955 yards, 15 touchdowns, and only four interceptions. He’s also run it for 751 yards and nine touchdowns. Outside of a loss to Houston, the Bulls have been led by Flowers and Gilbert’s offense and appear to be on a crash course with UCF in the regular season finale to decide who wins the AAC East.

While at Texas, Gilbert signed two four-star quarterbacks and he was also an integral part of Jimmy Garoppolo's emergence after coaching him for his final two seasons at Eastern Illinois.

Brian Jean-Mary - Defensive coordinator

This would be the even larger coup. If Strong could bring Mr. Jean-Mary with him, it would almost certainly do wonders for the rebuild of the Landshark defense. He has been with Charlie since Louisville and has been a linebackers coach and a recruiting coordinator in those previous stops.

During his time at Texas as linebackers coach, J.M. signed five-stars Malik Jefferson and Erick Fowler and four-star Anthony Wheeler. If you’re looking for the last time Ole Miss signed a five-star linebacker, you would have to go all the way back to the Flipadelphia days when the Rebs stole C.J. Johnson from Mississippi State.

We spoke with Rebel Grove’s Russell Johnson about Jean-Mary and he said that he would “definitely” move with Strong and that he recruits Georgia, Texas, South Carolina, North Carolina, and Florida very well. Johnson also mentioned that he could be seeing a promotion soon if Strong were to become the head man in Oxford.

Charlie Williams - Wide receivers coach

The next key assistant to hope for is the former Texas receivers coach from Long Beach, Calif. Oh and did I mention that he’s coached in the NFL for 10 years with the Buccaneers and the Colts? And he also had college stints with TCU, Miami, South Carolina, Arizona, and North Carolina? Yeah, you want him to join in on the fun.

During his time in the NFL, he did notable work with All-Pros Keyshawn Johnson, T.Y Hilton, and Reggie Wayne. In college, he signed two four-stars and a five-star while at UNC and he was responsible for bringing current Texas receiver and former four-star Devin Duvernay to Austin.

He would be quite the replacement for Jacob Peeler, if it comes to that, and would have years of experience from his time in the NFL to divulge to the current players and recruits as the receivers coach in Oxford. The nWo legacy would be in good hands.

Shaun King - Running backs coach

The former Tulane quarterback joined the staff in Tampa in 2016 and was retained once Charlie took the job. Which, right off the bat, says a ton about the instant credibility that Charlie has when Shaun could’ve bolted and gone to Oregon with Taggart. The former Super Bowl champ most recently worked as an NFL and college football analyst for NBC and Yahoo! Sports.

He’s also been an assistant head coach coach of Team Tampa 7-on-7, quarterbacks coach for Big County Preps and assistant head coach, offensive coach and quarterbacks coach at Gibbs High School. Hello recruiting.

As the quarterbacks coach in 2016, King guided Flowers to a 2016 American Athletic Conference Offensive Player of the Year award and his 1,530 yards rushing went down in history as the 5th most by any FBS signal caller. In fact, his 7.73 yards per carry ranked 4th among all ball carriers overall.

This season, his first as running backs coach, he has three players with 600+ yards rushing. Darius Tice is 4th in the AAC with 780 yards and nine touchdowns, Quinton Flowers is 6th with 751 yards and nine touchdowns, and D’Ernest Johnson is 9th with 631 yards and six touchdowns. Not too shabby, especially when it comes to recruiting more than one back to Ole Miss and showing them that you do have a track record of letting multiple folks split carries in order to keep the offense fresh and the up-tempo pace churning.

His defense is disruptive as hell.

The Bulls defense might appear quite familiar to you at first glance. And that’s because it’s the old trusty 4-2-5 scheme that the Rebs ran during Freeze’s tenure when the Landshark name truly took off and Ole Miss had a top 5 defense. It made its way to USF when Tom Allen took the gig there before leaving for Indiana to become their head coach. The scheme is tried and true against the spread offenses of the world now and implements chaos at every turn thanks to speed and athletic secondaries.

The Bulls lead the AAC in tackles, sacks, interceptions, and defensive touchdowns. They currently rank 17th as we mentioned before and are 38th in rushing S&P+ and 17th in passing S&P+. Not to be outdone, they also rank 19th in success rate and 20th in IsoPPP. They also are holding opponents to 19 points per game, 319 yards per game, and are tops in the league in pass defense efficiency. Hey, maybe Charlie and Co. know how to stop crossing routes against Arkansas!

Bulls’ opponents are only converting on 33% of their third downs and 38% of their fourth downs. They’re also +13 in the turnover margin with their league-leading 17(!) interceptions and four fumbles. These are all very good things and numbers that please me and would inevitably please you if he were to replicate anything close to that in 2018 in Vaught-Hemingway Stadium.

The COI decision is the ultimate road block for the search to really ramp up but it appears that there is a real path for Ole Miss to go after Strong and make this happen before Christmas, barring something insane being handed down from the NCAA.

Outside of the mediocre years in Texas, he holds a record of 31-4 in his last three years as a head coach. You might say that’s quite the convenient nugget but even then if you include his rocky campaign in Austin, he’s still 47-25.

There might be names out there like Mike Norvell or Frank Wilson or Neal Brown, but they collectively have nowhere near the experience Charlie has at different Power 5 programs and as a head coach. At this point it feels like Strong is the no-brainer hire that could make Bjork’s decision and job very, very easy.

Time will tell.

NCAA. COI. Y’all are up.