UTSA football coach Frank Wilson hasn’t stopped raving about the Roadrunners’ defense line, particularly junior end Kevin Strong, since the team started preseason workouts Aug. 1.
During a post-practice session with the media last week, Wilson heaped high praise on Strong, a 6-foot-4, 295-pound two-year letterman from Cleveland, a small community in the Houston metropolitan area.
“Another dominant day again by Kevin Strong,” Coach Wilson said. “He’s proving to be unblockable at times.”
On Thursday after practice, Wilson had more good things to say about Strong and two other defensive linemen, tackle Baylen Baker and end Marcus Davenport, a Stevens High School graduate.
“Right now it’s difficult for our offensive line, in a positive way for our team, because our defensive line is playing dominant up front,” Wilson explained. “Kevin Strong, Baylen Baker, Marcus Davenport. We’re as good as we’ve ever been at the defensive-line position.
“Those guys are really taking the line of scrimmage at the snap of the ball, disengaging and pursuing with an attitude. That’s a good thing. We have to continue to fight back as an offensive line, and we do.”
Wilson credited assistant coach Bo Davis for the defensive line’s improvement.
“The things our guys are doing now and what he’s able to get out of them has been phenomenal,” Wilson said.
Davis was formerly a defensive line coach at Alabama (2014-15) and Texas (2011-13). Touted as one of the best defensive line coaches in the country, Davis was fired at Alabama in April 2016 for alleged recruiting violations. Wilson, who is preparing for his second season as head coach at UTSA, hired Davis in February.
Strong finished his junior season with 24 tackles (12 solos, 12 assists), and had six stops for a loss. He also had one sack, two forced fumbles, and one fumble recovery. He blocked a field goal at Louisiana Tech and an extra point against New Mexico in the Gildan New Mexico Bowl.
“Our main thing is getting the ball back to our offense,” Strong said, referring to the defensive unit’s collective mindset.
Strong’s strong start in training camp has reflected the improvement of a UTSA defense that could be one of the best in Conference USA this season.
“I think that’s what he’s bought in,” said Wilson when asked what’s different about Strong this season. “He’s always been a hard worker, but I think the expectation, or the demand, accountability, is greater from our staff as a whole. It starts from myself to our defensive coordinator to our defensive line coach, of challenging him to be the dominant player that he can be.
“I sincerely think that he’s one of the better defensive linemen in our conference, and could be one of the better defensive linemen in our country. I just want him to view himself that way, with preparation. And if he does that with preparation, it’ll transfer over to the games and I think he can be that type of dominant player we’re looking for.”
Strong made it clear he won’t be lacking for motivation this season.
“Last year we came short of being conference champions again,” Strong said. “We went to a bowl game, which was nice, but we didn’t come out with a victory. We’re coming to get that title this year. We’re hoping to keep working and be able to do that.”
Strong has started 17 of 24 games at UTSA, which kicks off its seventh season on Sept. 2 against Houston at the Alamodome. Strong, Baker and Davenport are among seven defensive starters back from a team that finished 6-7 overall and 3-5 in C-USA play.
The Roadrunners finished second to Louisiana Tech in the conference’s West Division and have been picked to be runners-up to the Bulldogs again this season.
The other returning defensive starters besides Strong, Baker, and Davenport are senior linebacker La’Kel Bass, senior free safety Nate Gaines, sophomore linebacker Josiah Tauaefa and senior cornerback Austin Jupe, an East Central High School graduate.
Strong smiled when he was asked about the back-and-forth between the offensive and defensive lines during practice.
“We talk mess to each other all the time,” Strong said. “I mean, it’s all good at the end of the day. We just want to get each other better. I know we get into it with [offensive guard Austin] Pratt a lot. That’s the main one on the O-line. We’ll talk mess in between the whistle, but we just want to work and get better as a team.”
Asked who talks most, the offensive line or the defensive line, Strong smiled again before replying, “Pratt talks the most of anybody. But the D-line, we all talk.”
UTSA finished third last season in scoring defense (27.9) and was fourth in total defense, yielding 392 yards a game (162.5 rushing, 229.5 passing). Pete Golding is in his second season as the Roadrunners’ defensive coordinator.
A 2014 Cleveland High School graduate, Strong committed to UTSA in 2013 and stood by his pledge even after being recruited by Power Five schools Baylor and Northwestern.
“Those other places were nice,” Strong said. “I visited a couple. But UTSA, it was every day. They showed me that they were truly my family and they wanted me. So, when I came up here [on a recruiting visit], they just reeled me in. Next day, I committed.
“I was ready to be a Roadrunner. The way they showed me the atmosphere, how they treated me, it was just like a big family, like I was back home. I want to feel comfortable, and then it’s [San Antonio], not too far, not too close. It’s a good place to be.”
Strong was redshirted as a freshman but played in all 12 UTSA games in 2015, starting seven. He had a solid season, recording 31 tackles (12 solo, 19 assists), 6.5 tackles for loss, 2.5 sacks and a pair of pass breakups. Strong had a season-high five tackles, including two behind the line of scrimmage, in the 2015 season opener at No. 22 Arizona.