Teddy Bridgewater grows into elite QB

Given the way Louisville quarterback Teddy Bridgewater played this season, just about everybody expects him to go into 2013 as a preseason Heisman candidate.

Even his coach.

"Oh, without a doubt, yes," Charlie Strong says without any hesitation.

Incredibly enough, one of the first glimpses Strong had of Bridgewater was as a receiver. Back in 2009, Bridgewater attended the annual "Friday Night Lights" football showcase for top high school prospects in Gainesville, Fla. Strong was defensive coordinator at Florida at the time, and curiously, Bridgewater put himself in as receiver.

Although Florida was recruiting him as a quarterback, Bridgewater recalled during interviews Saturday in New Orleans that he wanted to be a receiver under Urban Meyer. "But Urban Meyer left, and the system has changed," he said.

Bridgewater, who grew up in Miami, had an offer to play at Florida. At all the in-state schools. He originally committed to Miami, but Strong kept on him after leaving Florida to become head coach at Louisville. Strong recalled going to watch Bridgewater practice one day and doing a double take. Bridgewater at receiver. Again.

"I said, 'Why are you out at wide receiver?'" Strong said. "He said, 'Coach, I just want to make sure I keep my skills sharp. "I told him, 'Lookee here, you’re not playing wide receiver, so you can get that out of your head. You’re going to be a quarterback for us.'"

Bridgewater ultimately went with Strong and the Cardinals -- and is a big reason he has Louisville playing the Gators in the Allstate Sugar Bowl on Tuesday. In fact, he is the best chance Louisville has of pulling the upset. Because he has been the best, most consistent player on the team.

Bridgewater has risen from a virtual unknown around the country when the season started to a player whom Gators linebacker Matt Elam called "hands down the best quarterback we will face this year."

You know who Florida faced this year?

Johnny Manziel, Heisman winner.

Aaron Murray, Georgia.

EJ Manuel, Florida State.

Tyler Bray, Tennessee.

Bridgewater. Better than all of them.

"The thing that's awesome about Teddy is Teddy wants to be coached hard," Louisville offensive coordinator Shawn Watson said during a news conference in New Orleans. "He really challenges me as a coach. He wants to be coached hard. He wants to be a great player.

"When you have a kid that wants to do that, who wants to chase excellence, you get a great player. That's why he's become the player he's become. So we put a lot on him because the style of our offense; his character again, like I've said, is really what helps. He makes our world go. He does everything for us."

Bridgewater had a breakout season last year as a true freshman, winning Big East newcomer of the year honors as he helped Louisville earn a share of the Big East title. Just about everybody predicted an even better performance this year. Watson says he challenged Bridgewater in the offseason as the two broke down every play from 2012.

"I was pretty critical of his play," Watson said. "And I wanted to set a point with him that these are things if you want to be a great quarterback, you have to do. Most of it centered around managing the game."

Anybody who watched Bridgewater this year will tell you that is where he improved the most between last year and this year. Not only did he throw for 3,452 yards, he increased his completion percentage to 69 percent, threw just seven interceptions and took 10 fewer sacks en route to being named Big East offensive player of the year.

Consider how impressive that improvement is when you realize Bridgewater is tasked with making decisions at the line, whether it is fixing protection or calling audibles. Watson says he has never had a player do so much so early in his career.

Not only did Bridgewater make better decisions, he grew as a leader. And that was never more evident than his performance in a 20-17 win over Rutgers that led Louisville to this game. Backup Will Stein started, as Bridgewater stood on the sideline with a broken wrist and sprained ankle. But the ultra-competitive Bridgewater got on the headset after the third series and said, 'Coach, I can do this. I can go.'"

What ensued was one of the grittiest efforts in quite some time. Unable to take a snap from under center because of a cast on his wrist, Bridgewater essentially went in for passing plays and led his team to a come-from-behind win. After the game, an emotional Watson hugged Bridgewater and whispered, "That was so awesome," a moment captured on video and widely circulated.

Bridgewater is much healthier headed into this game, telling reporters he is "all good," though he is wearing a protective brace on his wrist as a precaution. If he has time to throw, he will have every opportunity to help the Cardinals pull off the upset.

And if he has a big game, well, Louisville had better get more of Bridgewater's signature bubble gum ready to mail out to Heisman voters.