Ladies and gentlemen… I have seen the future. Louisville, as predicted by former head coach Howard Schnellenberger is INDEED on a collision course with the national championship, and the crash is imminent.
The past five years of Louisville football has been pretty amazing. Under Charlie Strong, the Cardinals achieved tremendous success, but it also achieved something far more important.
Louisville had traditionally been seen in the same light as someone running for President of the United States. Every four years, there would be a significant impact and transition that would gain national attention and recognition. However, when Strong arrived, he began implementing a strategy that would not only assure short-term success, but also long-term stability.
After four years of recruiting, the mission is accomplished. No longer is Louisville an afterthought on the college football landscape, but it is quickly becoming a national destination place. Recruits desire to be a part of this program. Recently, four-star recruit Jawan Pass, from Columbus, Ga., shocked many, when he chose Louisville, over the likes of Alabama and Auburn. On a national scale, this is a huge recruiting coup for Louisville, as Pass appears to have the skill set to become a dominant, dual-threat quarterback, in the mold of recent Louisville alum and current Minnesota Viking Teddy Bridgewater.
Bridgewater achieved tremendous success at Louisville and left an undeniable mark on the team, fan base and city. He propelled the Cardinals to a level of national prominence that the program had never witnessed before. The greatest irony about Bridgewater, however, is that he probably owes a tremendous amount of his on-the-field success to a young man that was born and raised in Louisville.
Wide receiver DeVante Parker, who went No. 14 overall to Miami in the most recent NFL Draft, is a graduate of Ballard High School who could have been a Heisman Trophy candidate last year, had he not missed the first six games of the season with a foot injury. When he returned, he was nothing short of brilliant, amassing almost 900 yards and five touchdowns in just six games. His absence gave opportunity to a sophomore with tremendous upside. The No. 2 WR, James Quick, who first starred at Kentucky prep powerhouse Trinity High School, showed tremendous flashes of brilliance. He returns with the experience he needs to lead Louisville’s skill position players along with probable starting QB and fellow Trinity teammate, Reggie Bonnafon.
These two homegrown stars are the “diamonds” found in a state that most nationally do not see as a talent-rich recruiting base. Quick and Bonnafon both possess the offensive prowess and skill to help Louisville achieve the championship greatness that has evaded the Cardinals so far. In fact, when you look at Louisville’s young celebrated gridiron history, it has been these “diamonds” of the Derby City that have helped to make the teams special.
Louisville has circled the national championship since 2006, but never quite crossed the threshold officially into the conversation. QB Brian Brohm led the Cardinals in 2006, along with another hometown diamond, RB Michael Bush (from Louisville Male who was at one time a Heisman Trophy candidate, but was injured in the first game of that season), to a 12-1 record. The only blemish was to Rutgers on a last-second field goal, as Louisville settled for its first-ever BCS bowl appearance, a 24-13 Orange Bowl victory over ACC champion Wake Forest.
Strong did get his quarterback, Bridgewater, from Florida, but it was Parker, his go-to, record-breaking pass catcher, who served as the fuel that made this offensive engine hum. While Strong was leading the Cardinals, Parker amassed 1,629 yards and 22 touchdowns. The Bridgewater-Parker combination was responsible for the best parts of the offense during their tenure together, and it was the latter’s play last year that salvaged a season that was very much in danger, as he returned from injury to match his total yards output the previous year, in just SIX GAMES.
Louisville’s statement game from last year took place in South Bend, Ind., right in front of the iconic Touchdown Jesus statue when a freshman QB (Bonnafon) shocked everyone with his steady and clutch play under pressure. Bonnafon only completed eight of his 21 attempts against the Fighting Irish, but it was his leadership and steadiness, (despite his youth) in the fourth quarter that led the Cardinals to victory. It seems that Louisville traditionally, when it has needed that pivotal player to put them over the top, has only needed to look in its own back yard for a “diamond.”
The 2016 Louisville recruiting class just got another verbal commitment from the No. 4 WR in Kentucky, 3-star recruit Keion Wakefield from Louisville Male High School. He is an underrated speed demon, with tremendous upside and ability. He is a playmaker, with an unbelievable work ethic and desire to be great. He should be able to prosper in head coach Bobby Petrino’s offense. Most importantly, Wakefield is another local kid, which has the fan base buzzing about the possibilities that he brings.
It’s one thing to win a title and a city embraces you for that. It is a transcendent joy to be from that city and to bring the city a title (See LeBron James returning to Cleveland). It was an impressive accomplishment to be able to lure Bridgewater out of the diamond-filled recruiting mines of Florida. But it is even more rewards and fulfilling to find NFL-level talent in your own backyard, and keep them there. Parker could be the first of what is a parade of high school graduates to transition from Louisville’s Jefferson County Public Schools system to the stage of the NFL Draft.
The growing perception of a homegrown assembly line also seems to suggest that Louisville is determined to mine its home fields well, in addition to searching elsewhere. While Louisville has not been known for being a high school football powerhouse region (except for Trinity and Male), there is no reason to ignore the diamonds that you do find in your own backyard.
After all… a diamond is valuable, no matter which mine it comes from.
— Written by Lloyd H. Spence Jr., who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Spence has covered both high school and college sports for several years, and has written for several outlets, incuding ESPNLouisville.com and CardinalSports.com. Follow him on Twitter @TalkinNOIZ.