Louisville’s Heisman Dark Horse
By Matt Osborne
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With his enviable combination of God-given talent, a proven and experienced head coach and an elite supporting cast of receivers, the circumstances are right for Will Gardner to piece together a season to remember for the Cardinals this fall.
If you believe in the validity of trends, then the safe bet would be to say that a relatively unknown player will walk away with the Heisman Trophy at the conclusion of the 2014 regular season.
College football’s most prestigious individual honor, amazingly enough, has been handed out to a first-year starter four of the past five seasons. The lone exception to that recent trend was Baylor quarterback Robert Griffin III, who walked away with the 2011 Trophy. Extending the parameters a little further, the trend also holds true for five of the past seven Heisman winners, as Florida’s Tim Tebow won the Heisman in his first season as full-time starter in Gainesville back in 2007.
Naturally, predicting which first-year starter has the greatest odds of walking away with the Heisman Trophy is quite an arduous task. A severe lack of proven production makes it increasingly difficult to accurately determine which newcomer to the national college football scene could exit the season as the country’s most dynamic playmaker.
The dearth of proven performance on which to base expectations leave overall talent and circumstance as the main factors in narrowing the list of potential first-year starters capable of making a Jameis Winston-like emergence nationally.
Examining the national landscape as spring practices gradually come to a close, there is perhaps no player in the country better-suited for a surprise run to the Heisman Trophy than new Louisville starting quarterback Will Gardner.
Attempting to replace superstar signal caller Teddy Bridgewater, the Cardinals' starting quarterback each of the last three seasons, obviously will draw many watchful eyes to Louisville to see how Gardner handles his role as the unquestioned leader of the offense.
While the pressure to replace a surefire first round draft pick will be immense, Gardner undoubtedly has the “time and place” element working tremendously in his favor.
The talent which Louisville has returning on the perimeter offensively is as good as any team in the country. The leader of the Cardinals’ talented assembly of pass-catchers will be rising senior DeVante Parker, who has been a first-team all-conference selection each of the last two seasons. A hometown prospect, Parker’s six-foot-three frame makes him a dangerous threat in the vertical passing game, while also allowing him to be a reliable, strong-bodied presence on underneath routes.
Parker will joined at wide receiver by one player who has been the model of consistency over the past three seasons and one player who has the chance to become as electrifying as any wide out in the country.
Entering his fourth season as a starter, Eli Rogers spent his first three seasons in the Bluegrass State serving as Bridgewater’s ultimate security blanket. Although he has never been selected as a first-team all-conference performer, Rogers has registered more than 40 receptions in all three of his seasons up to this point.
Conversely, sophomore James Quick has just six career receptions on his stat sheet as he heads into his second season of collegiate eligibility. That does not mean, however, that Quick lacks the talent or potential to become a household name before leaving the Louisville program. Quick, a five-star prospect coming out of Trinity High School in Louisville, is believed to be highest-rated recruit to ever sign with the Cardinals. After struggling to fully grasp the offense while getting lost in the shuffle at wide receiver in 2013, Quick has already emerged as a major part of Louisville’s planned offensive attack for this fall, as made evident by his five-catch, 152-yard performance in the team’s recent Spring Game.
It is also easy to forget that, in what was one of the biggest and most surprising moves of the offseason, former Louisville head coach Booby Petrino returned to his old stomping grounds to take over the controls of the Cardinals program for a second time.
Petrino, while controversial and polarizing away from the gridiron, has a career win-loss record (83-30) which is rivaled by few coaches in college football. He has had just one losing record in nine years at the collegiate level (5-7 in his first season at Arkansas), and he has won ten or more contests on four separate occasions.
Winning has obviously been a staple for Petrino wherever he has assumed the head coaching duties, but he is perhaps even more well-known for his proficiency as an offensive mastermind. Employing an offense that has been productive at all of his coaching stops, Petrino has helped oversee the development of some of college football’s premier quarterbacks of their respective eras, including Jake Plummer, Stefan Lefors, Brian Brohm, Ryan Mallett and Tyler Wilson.
Of course, Louisville’s tremendous talent at wide receiver and new offensive genius will all go for naught if Gardner’s quarterback play fails to match his coach’s lofty expectations for the position.
Luckily for Cardinals fans, if the Spring Game is any indication, Gardner is more than ready to step to the table to lead Louisville in its transition to the Atlantic Coast Conference.
Playing mostly against Louisville’s second-team defense, Gardner put together one of the most impressive performances in a college football spring game in the past decade. Giving his offensive comrades much of the credit for his success, Gardner completed 32-of-37 passing attempts for 542 yards and four touchdowns.
Gardner’s near-flawless performance, even against the backup defense, was certainly unexpected by most given his modest recruiting ranking coming out of Coffee County High School in Douglas, Georgia.
As is often the case, however, Gardner’s prep rankings can be rather misleading.
Playing in one of the toughest regions in the Peach State, Gardner missed the entirety of his senior season due to a ruptured ACL. His inability to participate in his final season of competition at the high school ranks dropped him down to a three-star recruit in the eyes of most recruiting services, although it did not prevent him from receiving multiple premier scholarship offers, including one from Nick Saban and the Alabama Crimson Tide.
After injuring his ACL a second time during his first summer on the Louisville campus, Gardner is now back playing at 100 percent health. During his recovery time, he also had the luxury of learning from Bridgewater, one of the greatest quarterbacks to ever play at a Louisville, a program widely-noted for its traditionally strong play under center.
One strong performance in a spring game, exceptional as it may have been, does not necessarily equate to automatic success once the regular season rolls around.
Based off of what we know and have seen, though, it is reasonable to expect that Gardner could very well be a finalist when the Heisman ceremony is held in December.
With his enviable combination of God-given talent, a proven and experienced head coach and an elite supporting cast of receivers, the circumstances are right for Gardner to piece together a season to remember for the Cardinals this fall.