TAMPA — Nearly three weeks short of his 21st birthday, University of Louisville junior quarterback Teddy Bridgewater already has come of age. He’s NFL-ready.
But while some fans of winless professional teams already are visualizing the No. 1 overall draft pick — have you heard about the “Tank for Teddy’’ campaigns? — Bridgewater’s typically unwavering focus can’t see beyond his next game.
“It’s never about him,’’ Louisville coach Charlie Strong said. “It’s always about the team.’’
That team again will lean on Bridgewater’s sturdy shoulders. The No. 18-ranked Cardinals are wounded after losing their shot at an unbeaten season. Louisville (6-1, 2-1 American Athletic Conference) will attempt to rebound on Saturday afternoon at Raymond James Stadium against the University of South Florida Bulls (2-4, 2-0).
“He is the real deal,’’ USF coach Willie Taggart said. “Teddy is a special kid. He reminds me a lot of the way Andrew Luck was as a college player (at Stanford). He’s very smart. He runs the entire offense. He can get his guys in and out of good and bad plays. He throws the deep ball very well. He is the real deal.’’
Imagine this deal that never happened: Bridgewater, a 6-foot-3, 196-pounder from Miami Northwestern, took an official visit to USF in the fall of 2010.
Bridgewater had reneged on his original commitment to the Miami Hurricanes. USF seemed intriguing, but the Bulls were entrenched with B.J. Daniels. Early playing time was important and Strong, who formerly recruited Miami as a University of Florida assistant, sold that dream as the first-year Louisville head coach.
In turn, Bridgewater has become a USF tormentor.
He has twice beaten the Bulls with fourth-quarter comebacks, completing 40 of 53 passes for 497 yards with five touchdowns and no interceptions.
His overall statistics this season are outrageous: five 300-yard passing games while completing 154 of 214 passes (72 percent) for 2,213 yards with 20 touchdowns and two interceptions.
“Not only is Teddy athletic, but he gets the ball to his different weapons and spreads the ball around,’’ Connecticut interim coach T.J. Weist said. “When he needs to, he can pull it down and run. He’s a weapon all the way across the field.’’
“You’ve got to find a way to get to him (with a pass rush),’’ Temple coach Matt Rhule said. “If he’s comfortable, he’s deadly. He’s an NFL-style quarterback. You can see him making checks at the line, changing protections. He’s operating in a pro-style system. He can throw all the throws. He’s dynamite.’’
Even in defeat.
As Strong said, “Teddy and the offense weren’t the problem’’ in Friday night’s 38-35 meltdown loss against the Central Florida Knights. The Cardinals surrendered a 21-point lead in the third quarter, wasting Bridgewater’s effort — 29 of 38 for 341 yards with two touchdowns and no interceptions.
Bridgewater often has his finest moments in the face of adversity.
On the first play of last season’s Sugar Bowl, Bridgewater was leveled by Florida linebacker Jon Bostic, who knocked off the quarterback’s helmet. Bridgewater got up and kept playing. The Cardinals upset the Gators.
In last season’s game at Rutgers, Bridgewater played with a broken left wrist and right ankle sprain, making him unable to take snaps under center. Trailing 14-3, Bridgewater entered the game and rallied the Cardinals.
“A lot of players would not have played in the game,’’ Strong said. “It spoke a lot about who he is.’’
“He’s a man of great character,’’ said USF defensive tackle Todd Chandler, who was Bridgewater’s teammate at Miami Northwestern.
Chandler saw it first-hand in Miami.
Just as Bridgewater began his high school career, his mother, Rose Murphy, was diagnosed with breast cancer. After seeing his mother struggle to get out of bed, after watching her hair fall out after chemotherapy, Bridgewater said he never viewed football pain in the same light.
Prepared to become the man of the house, he worked odd jobs around the neighborhood to make money for his family. He rarely strayed far from his mother’s side.
Eventually, she was declared cancer-free and she’s still a constant presence at Bridgewater’s games. She remembers, with delight, that a 7-year-old Bridgewater once promised he would buy her a pink Escalade.
It’s easy to get caught up in such things now that NFL riches seem so close.
Don’t bother to suggest that now.
He’s loyal to the Cardinals — and the next game.
“Teddy’s one of the biggest things going right now,’’ Chandler said. “Yet you wouldn’t know that. He’ll talk to you. He’ll talk to anybody. That’s what makes him so special.’’
So, where are the Bridgewater bobbleheads? Where are the flyers, posters and billboards? They don’t exist. Before the season, Bridgewater specifically asked Louisville officials not to run a Heisman Trophy advertising campaign. That, he said, would take away from the team.
“He’s the total teammate,’’ Strong said. “Whatever he’s doing, everyone is benefitting from it. Across the U.S., when you talk about Teddy Bridgewater, you’re talking about the University of Louisville. I can’t even describe what he represents to our program.’’
Actually, he just did.
Meanwhile, even the fans of woeful NFL teams are watching. As much as Bridgewater already means to Louisville, in those other cities, he represents hope.