After breakout season, Louisville's Bridgewater out to take next step

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Teddy Bridgewater's Louisville career got off to an inauspicious start. It was Sept. 1, 2011, the Cardinals' season-opener against Murray State. Louisville led 21-0 in the second quarter, and Bridgewater settled under center for his first Division I snap. Coach Charlie Strong wanted to see what his prized recruit had to offer.

Bridgewater's sequence didn't go as planned. Following a 22-yard carry by running back Victor Anderson, Louisville was whistled for three consecutive penalties: two false starts and a delay of game. On third-and-17, Bridgewater attempted his first pass. He drifted into the pocket, lofted a lazy ball downfield and watched as Racers' cornerback Darrell Davis hauled in an easy interception.

Bridgewater's first collegiate line: 0-for-1, one interception, a QB rating of -200.

"It was the most humbling experience ever," Bridgewater said. "You come into a game as a freshman thinking you can throw it around the ballpark. But reality sets in and it just brought me back down to earth."

It didn't take long for him to recover. Following a shoulder injury to starter Will Stein just two weeks later, Bridgewater led Louisville past rival Kentucky, sparking a breakout campaign in which he threw for 2,129 yards and 14 touchdowns. He was named Big East Newcomer of the Year at season's end, establishing the 6-foot-3 passer as one of the brightest -- and most resilient -- young stars in the nation.

It also made one thing abundantly clear: The Bridgewater era at Louisville has begun. And for the Cardinals to accomplish their 2012 goals, he'll have to be the one to take them there. "At the quarterback position, you have to have a leader," said Strong. "He's willing to accept that role."

Bridgewater's upside is undeniable. He boasts elite speed and athleticism, running the 40-yard dash in 4.55 seconds. He was precociously accurate as a freshman, completing 64.5 percent of his attempts, 29th in the FBS. Perhaps best of all, he's emerged as a workhorse in the weight room. He put on more than 20 pounds of muscle during the offseason, bulking up to 218 pounds in an effort to withstand more hits -- and increase his total of 66 rushing yards in 2011.

Like most young signal-callers, he's still an unproven decision-maker (he finished with 12 interceptions in '11), something he's worked extensively to improve during camp. But the early returns are encouraging. He was nearly perfect in the spring game: 19-of-21 for 257 yards and three touchdowns.

"The biggest difference is I've learned how to manage a game," said Bridgewater. "On third down or nickel down, if the primary read isn't there, I just check it down."

He learned the basics of the college game last season; now comes the hard part. Saddled with the burden of expectations, Bridgewater will be asked to reach even greater heights in Year 2.

"He's dealt with it very well," said Strong of the hype. "He's very mature for his age."

Indeed, Bridgewater has seemed to do all the right things, and perhaps his experience has helped. Coming out of perennial powerhouse Miami Northwestern High -- the same school that recently produced Lavonte David, Jacory Harris and Sean Spence, among others -- Bridgewater was touted as the next in a pipeline of blue-chip prospects. He faced lofty expectations at various recruiting camps, and even greater pressure on the field. The Bulls won state championships in 2006 and 2007. More than 30,000 fans regularly attended games, placing enormous expectations on his shoulders.

None of it fazed him. He amassed 2,606 passing yards and 22 touchdowns as a senior to lead Northwestern to a 9-3 record and the second round of the Class 6A playoffs. "Every Friday night you go into the game facing some of the top teams in the state of Florida," Bridgewater said. "It just helped prepare me being able to compete against some of the best players in the country."

Though young, Bridgewater is battle-tested. That's crucial, because potential comes with a bull's-eye. Bridgewater has become a target.

For the first time since Brian Brohm's stint in Louisville, the Cardinals enter the season with BCS dreams. In addition to Bridgewater, the program returns 16 starters -- seven on offense, nine on defense -- including cornerback Adrian Bushell, a first-team All-Big East performer who tallied 50 tackles in 2011. The receiving corps took a hit when Michaelee Harris went down with a season-ending ACL tear last week, but the group brings back Eli Rogers and DeVante Parker, sophomore wideouts who combined for 745 yards and seven scores as freshmen.

The schedule only adds to the excitement. Louisville faces a manageable early nonconference stretch (Kentucky, Missouri State, North Carolina, at Florida International) before tackling a Big East slate that's notably lighter after West Virginia's departure. Though tough tests could loom in road bouts with Pitt and Rutgers, no game stands out as unwinnable.

These Cardinals are young, but they're talented. Given the prevailing uncertainty around the rest of the conference, Bridgewater and Co. have an opportunity to make a serious run.

"We got to handle expectations," said Strong. "Each and every year you have to write your own story."

For now, that's all this is: the beginning of a tantalizing team's next chapter. Plenty of questions remain, and the youthful Cardinals will likely experience growing pains. Strong is quick to emphasize that Bridgewater can't do it alone.

But Bridgewater seems calm. He's focused. He's ready. Despite that inauspicious first pass -- one long forgotten by nearly everyone but Bridgewater -- he seems poised to build on an already promising career.

"You have to remain a student of the game," Bridgewater said. "You can't think you know everything. That's the biggest way to handle the spotlight."