Their stories are similar in so many ways. Two quarterbacks from South Florida, raised and supported by strong, single mothers, turning their backs on established in-state powers to take a chance on Louisville.
What Teddy Bridgewater began when he signed with the unheralded Cardinals in 2011 carried on with Lamar Jackson when he signed in 2015. Those twin decisions have built Louisville into a program that can no longer be overlooked, one that sits on the precipice of perhaps the greatest season in school history.
“When Teddy came here, I was like, ‘Will we ever have a quarterback that touches how Teddy impacted this program?” running back Brandon Radcliff said. “Little do you know two years after Teddy’s gone, we have a dynamic quarterback that’s taken the world in his hands. Lamar is a winner, just the way Teddy was. They’re both winners.”
Radcliff brings a unique perspective because he played with both quarterbacks and grew up in Miami, the same as Bridgewater. Then-coach Charlie Strong recruited hard in Florida, and getting Bridgewater in the class of 2011 was a huge coup.
Bridgewater decommitted from the hometown Miami Hurricanes and chose Louisville, in part, because he felt he could play as a freshman. Bridgewater was one of three ESPN 150 players Strong signed in that class. All three came from Miami.
“I think Teddy’s decision influenced everybody from 2011 on up,” Radcliff said. “I was one of those just because I knew what Teddy could do, and what he would do to the program.”
As a freshman taking a redshirt in 2012, Radcliff watched Bridgewater blossom into a star. The big moment came in the Sugar Bowl victory over Florida, when Bridgewater picked apart the Gators with a precision that sent his stock soaring. A little more than a year later, he became the Minnesota Vikings' first-round pick.
Around that time, Radcliff started hearing about Jackson, who played his high school ball farther north in Boynton Beach, Florida.
“He would be a one-man wrecking crew,” Radcliff said. “I was like, ‘I hope we get that guy.’”
Jackson turned away a late push from Florida to sign with Louisville, in part because he wanted to play immediately. Both Bridgewater and Jackson played as true freshmen; both threw interceptions on their first career passes.
There are more similarities. Both are quiet and humble, and speak softly enough that it is sometimes hard to hear them. They talk in short sound bites but are quick with a smile. Early in his career, Bridgewater's smile revealed braces. Jackson wears braces, too.
But the similarities end there. The two are dramatically different players. Bridgewater is a dropback passer who scrambled only in emergencies. His completion percentage hovered near 70 percent, and his ability to read defenses allowed him to call audibles as he progressed in his career.
Jackson? “He is one of them hold-your-breath guys,” Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said. As in, hold your breath because you have no idea what will happen. It could be an 80-yard throw for a touchdown; it could be a hurdle over a defender; it could be a long run with spin moves at the goal line.
Those plays have fueled this season's Jackson hysteria, along with his 25 total touchdowns. As a comparison, Bridgewater accounted for 28 total touchdowns in his sophomore season.
The many Jackson highlights have elicited a visceral reaction. In Louisville, one group of fans had a sign made with the now-famous “Lamar leap.” It is attached to the top of a metal pole, so anybody who comes past during their tailgate can stand under it and get hurdled.
“Teddy got this team to another level,” said Justin Renck, whose Red Rage Tailgate group made the sign. “But we’ve never seen anything like Lamar here. It’s like watching a video game. He’s not the next Teddy. He’s just Lamar.”
Their offensive systems are different, too. Bridgewater was not going to run anywhere (he had 170 career rushing yards), but he played in an offense that relied on balance. Strong placed such a heavy emphasis on the running game that many wondered why Cards backs weren’t more prolific. In 2013, Bridgewater’s final season, Louisville averaged 460.8 yards per game.
In Jackson, coach Bobby Petrino has a gifted runner and a gifted passer, a bonanza for an offense guru. Louisville is ranked No. 1 in virtually every offensive category this season, averaging 682 yards per game.
“The things that Lamar is doing, that’s an obvious wow,” said former center Mario Benavides, who played with Bridgewater and lives in Louisville. “You don’t have to know a lot about football to understand what he’s doing. A lot of what Teddy did, a lot of why we were successful are things that maybe the average person wouldn’t notice. He brought a lot more than just his ability as a passer.”
One more point that cannot be ignored: Jackson is playing in a more high-profile conference, the ACC. He had a huge performance against No. 2 Florida State and now has another opportunity against No. 5 Clemson on Saturday. In his career, during which the Cardinals played in the Big East and American conferences, Bridgewater played one top-five team: Florida.
Does Jackson come to Louisville without Bridgewater setting the foundation? Maybe. Maybe not. Jackson has said Bridgewater is a reason he ended up looking at the program.
In the offseason, Jackson began studying Bridgewater as a pocket passer to help improve his accuracy. That became a huge point of emphasis; Jackson completed just 55 percent of his passes last season.
They never met while playing youth football, but they have struck up a friendship since Jackson arrived on campus. When Bridgewater visited over the summer, they met and exchanged phone numbers. Their text messages picked up leading into the Florida State game.
“He was like, ‘How is it on campus? You’ve got to crank it up. Bring Louisville on. Turn the whole crowd up,’” Jackson recalled.
Bridgewater would know. He did that better than any other player ... until Jackson came along.