June 12, 2012
By Ira Green for UofLsports.com
LOUISVILLE, Ky. - When Shawn Watson arrived in Louisville for his first season with the Cardinal football program in 2011, he was tasked with directing a group of quarterbacks that consisted of just one veteran, one sophomore and a heralded freshman.
Five weeks into the fall season, Watson's duties immediately changed in a drastic manner. After managing a unit that contained fewer than the number of starters on one side of the ball, head coach Charlie Strong assigned the offensive play-calling duties to Watson just prior to the contest North Carolina, a squad that saw three defensive players selected in the first two rounds of the 2012 NFL Draft.
Similar to the quarterback position, Louisville's entire offense was relatively young. As expected, Watson's blood pressure raised a bit.
"There was one time I remember when we were playing North Carolina," Watson recalled, "I'm having one of my moments - I get really competitive - calling the game, and Charlie says, `Hey, calm down. You have eight freshmen out there.' And we did, we had eight freshmen out there. Four of those kids were on the offensive line."
The move, giving Watson full control of the offense, held true for the remainder of the season and he was named Louisville's offensive coordinator this year in February. Short term, the task to Watson seemed daunting just as it would for any assistant. Not to mention, the team's only veteran quarterback, Will Stein, suffered an injury the week before and it was uncertain how long he would be sidelined.
A 30-year veteran, though, Watson wasn't rattled. Rather, he was giddy after seeing his freshman quarterback, Teddy Bridgewater, throw for 221 yards against Marshall and follow that with a 19-for-30 performance with 173 yards and one touchdown against the Tar Heels. Even that early in the year, it was evident that Bridgewater was equipped with the mental and physical attributes to grow into a player that could return the football spotlight to Louisville.
Under Watson, who has mentored some of the nation's elite quarterbacks and engineered a number of high-powered offenses, Bridgewater and the Cardinals' offense excelled. In the final eight games, Bridgewater tallied 1,615 yards through the air, going 140-for-216 (65 percent) while tossing 10 touchdowns. More importantly, the Miami, Fla., product helped the Cardinals to a 5-3 record that included a win over nationally ranked West Virginia, securing the Cardinals' a share of the BIG EAST title and leading Louisville to its second-straight bowl game.
At the year's conclusion, Bridgewater was recognized as an All-American by four media organizations, including Yahoo! and The Sporting News. Just as the media noticed, it was evident to those surrounding the Cardinals' football program - coaches and supporters alike - that Bridgewater is as good as the hype he earned coming out of high school.
"The guy who makes us go is Teddy Bridgewater," Watson said from the Quarterback Club luncheon on Tuesday afternoon at the Wildwood Country Club. "He's unique. I've been coaching this position for about 20 years now, and I've had some really good kids. Teddy is the best I've been around, and it's easy to say because you saw the type of year he had.
"What's unique about Teddy is that his character is his greatest attribute. He's a good passer and a good athlete, and he has all those things he does really well, but his character is what makes him the player he is. I've never been around a kid who studies the game like he does. He's the kind of kid who internalizes teaching, which means you tell him one time and he takes it personally and fixes it. You never see the same mistake twice on film. He does whatever it takes. If he's having a hard time or struggling with something, he's willing to put the extra time in to make it right."
Equally as important, and both Watson and Bridgewater would attest, is Stein. Continually recognized as one of the team's leaders on and off the field, the Louisville native has set the bar for what's expected.
At the luncheon, Watson asserted that much of Bridgewater's improvement has come as a result of Stein.
"Will Stein is Teddy's X-factor, and I've referred to that several times," Watson stated. "Teddy will tell you the same thing; I was really proud of Teddy after the spring game because he said that to the media. He said his drive and push is Will Stein; Will Stein comes to practice every day trying to take Teddy's job and that's what you want as a coach. It gives Teddy a push and keeps motivating him.
"Will is like a second coach to him. He really mentors Teddy and we're blessed to have two quarterbacks that we can win a championship with."
Watson understands, though, that work still needs to be done if Louisville wants to develop into and remain among the best.
"With young players, no matter how gifted they are and how good they are, we have to keep developing them. We can't rely on talent and talent alone because schemes, coaching and fundamentals all play into that."
What was a young and inexperienced group a season ago, the Cardinals' offense has quickly taken shape. With Bridgewater and a number of other playmakers, Watson is ready to ignite the fireworks on offense.