December 26, 2013

Louisville football team builds its squad with South Florida pipeline

Coach Charlie Strong has recruited heavily in South Florida, and 24 players from the area are on Louisville’s roster.

At some point, they all daydreamed of playing with the “U” on their helmets.

And why not? Living in South Florida, their impressionable years were spent watching a parade of NFL-quality talent pass through the University of Miami — Frank Gore and Willis McGahee, Andre Johnson and Santana Moss, Vince Wilfork and Jonathan Vilma, Ed Reed and the late Sean Taylor.

“Growing up, that was the dream team,” said Charles Gaines, raised perhaps six miles from where the iconic Orange Bowl stadium once stood.

Times change, though. The old Orange Bowl came down five years ago, and the Hurricanes slipped from their lofty college football perch. Gaines now plays football at Louisville, where he and 23 other South Floridians have helped bring the Cardinals national attention.

Now when the Russell Athletic Bowl kicks off Saturday night, they’ll line up across from that very same “U” that featured so prominently in their boyhood.

“When I was home for a couple of days before bowl practice, that’s all everyone’s talked about,” said receiver Michaelee Harris. “Just to play against Miami, there’s a lot of hype behind it.”

Harris is one of five Miami Northwestern standouts now playing for Louisville, as is quarterback Teddy Bridgewater. Gaines and tackle John Miller came from Miami Central. Three came from Norland, two from Southridge, two from Homestead.

“Yeah, I think it’s like a pipeline now,” said receiver Eli Rogers, another Northwestern kid.

Bridgewater is the plum, of course, an early Heisman Trophy contender who became the first QB to lead the Cardinals to two 10-win seasons. He’s 26-7 as a starter, one win shy of tying Dave Ragone for most in school history.

But South Florida also has provided the Cardinals’ interception leader (Gaines), their Nos. 3 and 4 receivers (Rogers, Gerald Christian) and No. 3 tackler (James Burgess). Miller is one of three offensive linemen to start all 12 games.

“We like to believe we have the best talent when it comes to football,” Harris said. “Look at who’s coming out of that area — Booker T. Washington, Central, Northwestern. You can go up to Broward with Miramar, Ely, St. Thomas. All those schools.”

Coach Charlie Strong mined South Florida well in his days as an assistant coach, including 12 years at UF under Steve Spurrier and later Urban Meyer. So it should surprise no one that he’s using the same foundation to build his own program.

“He draws good people like Teddy Bridgewater and Michaelee Harris, those type of guys that want to be a part,” said tight end Gerald Christian, a product of Florida High in Palm Beach Gardens.

Said Harris: “You know his trust and his love for his players is genuine. You can recruit anywhere with that type of passion. He’s just an outstanding guy.”

Four years ago, Bridgewater, Rogers and defensive tackle B.J. Dubose (Northeast) all were UM verbal commitments. But when the Hurricanes fired coach Randy Shannon, the process opened up again.

“He just sold me on the family and the brotherhood that is here,” Rogers said. “I think the guys back home just see that [passion] and see that we’re successful here. That probably gives them the motivation to come up.”

Leaving home to showcase your skills somewhere else is one thing, though. Now U of L’s South Floridians find themselves standing in the way of UM’s first 10-win season in a decade.

“It was a huge wow factor once I heard we were playing the University of Miami,” Bridgewater said.

Said Strong: “They have to understand that they can’t get too high or too low for this game. We just have to stay even keel and prepare like we have prepared all season long.”

Even so, several of South Florida’s Cardinals admit UM still holds a soft spot inside.

“I won’t lie to you guys — I’m a Hurricane at heart,” Harris said. “But I know how big this game is, and I’m a Louisville Cardinal first.”

Said Rogers: “I always was a Miami fan and still am. But I’m here now.”

Indeed, the consequences of a UM victory offers plenty of motivation.

“I’ve got to go home and hear that you lost against Miami,” Gaines said. “So winning is big in my own world of play.”

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