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How Texas HC Charlie Strong built an NFL factory at Louisville

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After producing three first-round draft picks last year, the Cardinals have a large group of players headed to the NFL Combine this season.

Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Missing heavily on numerous classes sunk the Mack Brown era in Austin, but the success of new Texas Longhorns head coach Charlie Strong in hitting on his first two recruiting cycles with the Louisville Cardinals provides tremendous hope for the future.

After sending quarterback Teddy Bridgewater and safety Calvin Pryor to the NFL last year from the 2011 Louisville recruiting class and defensive end Marcus Smith from the 2010 class (all three were first-round selections), the former group makes up most of the 11 invites to the NFL Combine this year. Only the Florida State Seminoles sent more players to the major testing event in 2015 with 12.

So how did Strong assemble such an impressive group despite recruiting prospects to a program that hasn't traditionally attracted the top players from around the country?

Let's take a look.

Cincinnati (Ohio) Winton Woods dual-threat quarterback Dominique Brown

6'2 | 215 pounds | *** | No. 364 prospect | No. 11 dual-threat quarterback | No. 18 player in Florida

Originally recruited as a quarterback, Louisville was able to land Brown just before National Signing Day in 2010 as Strong assembled his first class for the Cardinals, in part because they offered him the chance to remain at that position, which Ohio State did not. He only threw one pass at Louisville in his career, quickly moving to running back and breaking out as the team's leading rusher in 2013 before the arrival of Michael Dyer pushed him into a back-up role.

Takeaway: Getting strong athletes onto campus by giving them their preference of positions is much more advantageous than trying to pigeon-hole them prior to their commitment and risk losing a chance at them.

Former Auburn running back Michael Dyer

Dyer is an interesting case for Strong because he left Auburn after a suspension for failing a drug test and then testified in a case involving four former teammates who apparently took his handgun without his knowledge and then committed an armed robbery. After transferring to Arkansas State, he was dismissed after a traffic stop for speeding with an unloaded handgun in his trunk became public.

The circuitous journey of Dyer then took him to Arkansas Baptist, where he earned an associates degree and stayed out of trouble, allowing him to convince Strong to take a chance on him despite the fact that he repeatedly broke the head coach's core values at other places.

After injuries plagued Dyer's junior season at Louisville, he flashed at times in 2014 before missing the bowl game when he was ruled academically ineligible.

Takeaway: Strong is willing to take a chance on players if he believes in their ability to change.

Louisville (Kent.) Ballard wide receiver DeVante Parker

6'3 | 180 pounds | *** | No. 311 prospect | No. 11 wide receiver | No. 4 player in Kentucky

Even though Parker held offers from Indiana and Kentucky, his recruitment was essentially a slam dunk for Louisville because his father played running back for the Cardinals. One of the first commitments for Strong and his staff, the big wide receiver pledged days after Strong became the head coach.

He didn't seem to have a lot of positive things to say about the offense run under Strong and Shawn Watson, however, calling it "frustrating" that the offense "didn't seem to want to score anything." He also accused them of "putting their foot on the brake" offensively.

Despite those complaints and the high-octane offense installed under new head coach Bobby Petrino, shaky quarterback played resulted in fewer receptions, fewer yards, and fewer touchdowns for Parker as a senior.

Takeaway: Sometimes coaches just get lucky in landing talented legacies.

Former Florida tight end Gerald Christian

Strong rather lucked into the nation's No. 2 tight end from the class of 2010 when Christian elected to leave Gainesville and head to Louisville, following his former defensive coordinator. Christian's per-catch average went down as a senior, but he did still produce 810 yards and nine touchdowns in his last two seasons, which would make him the most productive tight end in Austin since David Thomas in 2005.

Takeaway: Filling in around the edges with transfers can elevate a program, but Texas is much more likely land players like Christian out of high school than as transfers, so Christian's success at Louisville doesn't really have much applicability to Strong's current program.

Louisville Fern Creek defensive tackle Jamon Brown

6'4 | 305 pounds | *** | No. 548 prospect | No. 41 defensive tackle | No. 7 player in Kentucky

Brown started his freshman year at defensive tackle before moving to offense and earning a starting role at guard by the fifth game against North Carolina. After a move out to right tackle as a sophomore, he switched to left tackle as a junior and remained there for the rest of his career.

Takeway: Locking down local talent-producing areas is always crucial in recruiting and having an open mind and eye for potential development at other positions is a fantastic way to add depth or find starters quickly.

Miami (Fla.) Central offensive guard John Miller

6'2 | 285 pounds | *** | No. 1132 prospect | No. 73 offensive guard | No. 143 player in Florida

Strong and his staff, especially primary recruiter Clint Hurtt, tapped their South Florida roots to land Miller just before National Signing Day in 2011 over schools like Kansas State, UCF, and South Florida. Like Brown, the Miami product quickly found a starting role along the offensive line and stayed in that role throughout his career, with the exception of several games missed due to injury.

Takeaway: Despite the modest ratings, Strong and his staff were able to identify properly identify and evaluate an overlooked talent in an area they know well.

Fort Lauderdale (Fla.) Northeast strong-side defensive end BJ Dubose

6'4 | 227 pounds | *** | No. 420 prospect | No. 28 strong-side defensive end | No. 62 player in Florida

Another early pledge for Strong in 2011, the head coach and star recruiter Clint Hurtt managed to flip Dubose from Miami just before National Signing Day, only days after he committed to the Hurricanes. Dubose notched two sacks in his first collegiate start and eventually grew into a defensive tackle, As a senior, he recorded four sacks and 7.5 tackles for loss.

Takeaway: Strong and Hurtt know South Florida and defensive line prospects.

Atlanta (Georgia) Maynard Jackson strong-side defensive end Lorenzo Mauldin

6'4 | 240 pounds | *** | No. 926 | No. 58 strong-side defensive end | No. 68 player in Georgia

Originally committed to South Carolina, Mauldin extended the process well beyond National Signing Day in 2011, eventually inking with Louisville in March. His only other major offer was from Kentucky. As a freshman, he was a contributor on special teams and even appeared at tight end before earning a starting role late in the season on defense. After a productive junior season, Mauldin picked up 6.5 sacks and 13 tackles for loss as a senior and is projected as a third-round draft pick by CBSSports.com

Takeaway: Recruited by Brian Jean-Mary, Mauldin wasn't a South Florida find for Strong and company, but he is another example of a high-upside three-star prospect who was able to maximize his potential at Louisville.

Miami (Fla.) Central wide receiver Charles Gaines

6'0 | 180 pounds | *** | No. 512 prospect | No. 63 wide receiver | No. 79 player in Florida

Like many of these prospects, Gaines had a modest offer list -- though he received interest from other schools, his best offers were from Duke and West Virginia. As a redshirt freshman, he played wide receiver before making the move to cornerback in 2013, quickly transitioning in a breakout season with five interceptions, an interception return for a touchdown, a kickoff return for a touchdown, and a punt return for a touchdown.

Takeaway: Not only is Strong willing to move players from one side of the ball to the other, he's successful when he does so.

Milford Academy safety Gerod Holliman

6'0 | 187 pounds | **** | No. 2 prep prospect | No. 1 prep safety | No. 1 prep player in New York

Another South Florida prospect who went to prep school out of Miami (Fla.) Southridge, Holliman was a rare four-star prospect out of this group when he was in high school and held offers from schools like Kansas State, Nebraska, and Ole Miss. Holliman only started two games in 2013, but then blossomed into the Thorpe Award winner in 2014, tying the FBS record with 14 interceptions.

Takeaway: Some patience with a grade risk paid off for Strong eventually, though his Louisville teams weren't able to benefit from Holliman's eventual success.

American River CC safety James Sample

6'2 | 200 pounds | *** | No. 107 JUCO prospect | No. 7 JUCO safety | No. 26 JUCO player in California

Sample is the only player on this list who wasn't recruited by Strong, as he signed with Washington out of high school and committed to Louisville in 2014.

***

During Strong's time at Louisville, he produced three first-round draft picks in the 2014 draft class and could have as many as 10 players selected from the 2015 group. Compare that to zero NFL draft picks last year for Texas from recruiting classes that ranked No. 6 and No. 2 in the 247Sports Composite team rankings.

And it's not as if the current Texas head coach was landing a great deal of high-level talent -- quite the contrary, many of the players listed above were three-star prospects with unimpressive offer lists. Strong also filled in around the edges with strategic transfers that provided the Cardinals program with higher-level talent than it could land on the recruiting trail. Still, the major takeaway remains that In the areas of evaluation and development, Strong is among the best in the country, especially on the defensive side of the ball.

Just imagine what he can do with the Longhorns as he acquires better talent than he could land with the Cardinals.