Louisville linebacker Devonte Fields ended the regular season a far different player than when it started, exuding confidence that comes with a full knowledge of the system and much more time in the weight room.
Over the final six games, Fields racked up all 7.5 of his sacks and 15 of his 19 tackles for loss. The sack total ranks second on the team; his tackles for loss leads the team and is tied for second in the country.
The hope is that there is much more to come -- should Fields return for his senior season. Fields said in a recent phone conversation a decision on the NFL was "still up in the air right now." Defensive coordinator Todd Grantham believes it would benefit Fields greatly to come back for one more year.
"If you're not a first-round pick, you should come back to school. That's always been my take on that," Grantham said in a phone interview. "He has a chance to really accelerate his production moving forward. He has a chance to really blossom in my opinion and make something of another year.
"He's going to be around our strength staff, around our players. It's just a matter of perfecting your craft. I always tell the guys it's your craft. Now that we have him on video, we have an offseason to where we can dissect and work to make him a better player."
When Fields arrived at Louisville in August, he had two sets of questions awaiting him.
Would he return to the form that got him Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year honors at TCU?
Would he stay out of trouble?
Coach Bobby Petrino took heat for offering Fields a second chance. Fields was arrested for allegedly hitting an ex-girlfriend in 2014, resulting in his dismissal from TCU. After Fields spent a year at Trinity Valley Community College, Louisville did extensive vetting and interviews, and brought him in. Shortly before he got on campus, Fields had the misdemeanor assault charge dropped after completing an anger-management program.
Still, he understood one thing very clearly: he could not blow this shot. He might not get another one if he did.
"Just had to embrace my second chance, most people don't really get," Fields said in a recent phone interview. "That's pretty much it right there. I couldn't lose my opportunity for my second chance. I had to make the best of it."
Fields tried to learn the playbook as quickly as possible, but even tougher than a crash course in Grantham 101 was getting up to speed with the workouts. Though he played junior college, Fields was out of shape. Since he had no time in the Louisville offseason program, Fields essentially had to play his way into shape.
It showed in the first half of the season. But the turning point came in a loss to Florida State, in which the defensive effort was lacking. Fields approached Petrino after that game and said, "You won't see that type of effort from me ever again."
"It wasn't one of my best games," Fields said. "That one play we missed six tackles, my effort wasn't the best on that play and I had to look at myself in the mirror and just fix it."
The following week, he had his first sack of the season and eight tackles against Boston College. The week after that, he had 2.5 tackles for loss against Wake Forest. And away he went on the field. Off the field, he did everything he coaches asked.
"He's honest enough to say, 'Hey this wasn't good enough, I've got to get better,'" Grantham said of Fields' progression. "That's the biggest thing with players. The biggest things as a player, when you watch the tape Sunday, am I improving or what do I need to work on to become a better player? If you take that critical analysis of yourself, you can move forward. He's a guy who has an honest opinion and an honest evaluation of himself, and then he works in the areas that are needed to allow him to improve."
Next up is the Franklin American Mortgage Music City Bowl against Texas A&M on Dec. 30. Fields' goal is simple: keep playing the way he finished, not the way he started.