When first-year Louisville coach Charlie Strong called Bilal Powell the "face of the program" in the preseason, a lot of people had the same reaction: Huh?
Powell had opened eyes with a strong finish to his freshman year, but he was underwhelming and at times out of shape his next two years. Besides, the Cardinals had a more-heralded player in the same backfield as Powell with 2008 Big East rookie of the year Victor Anderson returning from injuries.
But it all makes sense once you delve into Powell's past. He was heading down the wrong track but transformed himself into someone people brag about. Which, if you think about it, is the path Strong wants the Louisville program to take.
Powell has been the Cardinals' best player through two games, rushing for 245 yards and three touchdowns while averaging 7.7 yards per carry.
"He's a complete back," said Louisville running backs coach Kenny Carter, who has been an assistant at Florida, Penn State and Pittsburgh. "I've coached a lot of really good backs, and he's as good as all of them."
Powell is almost painfully media shy, won't talk on camera and declines interviews that focus on himself. He did not want to speak with ESPN.com for this story.
Coaches and teammates describe him a reserved, quiet guy who mostly just goes about his business in practice. That's a long way from where he used to be.
Keith DeMyer, the football coach at Lake Gibson (Fla.) High School, remembers when Powell transferred into his school in the ninth grade.
"He was pretty wild," DeMyer said. "He had no GPA -- a 0.0. It's amazing that with the gangs and life on the streets and other things he was involved in, he was able to survive. It reminds me of the movie 'The Blind Side.' Bilal's story might be even more incredible."
Powell's mom worked to support her family, and he embraced the street life. He ran with local gangs, got in fights, even got shot at. Between his sophomore and junior year, DeMyer said, Powell got stabbed and had to be hospitalized.
Lake Gibson's coaches spent a couple of years trying to get through to Powell. In the summer before his senior year after attending a 7-0n-7 camp, he asked Lake Gibson running backs coach Rusty Bulloch if he could spend the night at his house. That turned into another night. Powell opened up to Bulloch and told him he'd been having nightmares. He wanted to change his life.
Bulloch invited Powell to live with his family at their country ranch. He and his wife had taken in several troubled kids before. They made them do chores around the ranch and taught them Bible scriptures. A couple of days after he moved in, Powell "gave his life to the Lord" in a ceremony held in the ranch house living room, Bulloch said.
"It was like a 180-degree turn overnight," Bulloch said. "He immediately stopped cussing. He stopped running around with gangs. He didn't want to smoke marijuana anymore. He was a totally different person."
And he soon would become a different player. During two-a-days before his senior year, a couple of Lake Gibson running backs went down with injuries. Bulloch suggested that DeMyer give Powell, who had played cornerback his first three years, a look on offense. One practice run later, the change became permanent.
Powell rushed for more than 1,900 yards and 22 touchdowns as a senior. That's also when he caught the eye of Strong, who was then the Florida defensive coordinator. Strong recalled watching Lake Gibson play a game against Lakeland, which featured seven future Gators. Powell nearly won the game by himself.
When Strong came to Louisville, he brought that game up to Powell.
"You're not playing that way right now," Strong said. "I need to see that Bilal Powell I saw that night."
Strong first demanded that Powell get back to his ideal playing weight. He had bulked up to about 215 pounds and had lost some of the speed that had marked his early career. Powell now weighs about 202.
"He's got the agility he had when he was a younger, and I think that's helping his confidence," quarterback Adam Froman said. "He goes out there and knows that on every play he can do whatever he wants. He can either shake a defender if he wants to, or he can run him over."
Powell has done a little bit of both so far, including an 80-yard touchdown run against Kentucky in the opener. The Face of the Program hasn't done much talking publicly about his exploits, but he does have a voice. DeMyer said Powell still speaks to ninth and 10th-graders at Lake Gibson about his life and what he's overcome to set an example they can follow.
"He's the face of our program because he's a kid who changed his life and made a difference," Carter said. "And he's going to continue to influence others because they will see they can come from the dark into the light."