One came to school as a can’t-miss prospect, one of the most highly regarded quarterbacks in the nation from an area that produces countless stars – a potential starter from the day he arrived on campus.
The other was a three-star recruit, whose recruitment was primarily limited to schools in the Northeast. An accomplished high school player, he would be expected to contribute at the college level, but was far from a sure thing.
Both had promising freshman seasons. And now, as sophomores, Louisville’s Teddy Bridgewater and Connecticut’s Yawin Smallwood have embodied a new wave of BIG EAST players who are making their names on a national level.
Both players have produced staggering numbers through the first three games of the 2012 season. Bridgewater has completed 82 percent of his passes, thrown for 855 yards and five touchdowns, and perhaps most importantly, has not been intercepted in 88 attempts, playing against defenses from the SEC and ACC in two of his three starts.
Smallwood’s numbers at middle linebacker are equally gaudy – 35 tackles with four sacks, nine tackles for loss and has a forced fumble. Connecticut’s defense didn’t let Massachusetts cross midfield and has allowed its opponents to score points in just four of 12 quarters of play this year.
It is far too early to hand out postseason honors in Week 4. But Bridgewater and Smallwood have both played their way into the early conversation for any award that’s presented, even, daresay, the Heisman Trophy.
The national media has agreed. Pundits ranging from Ralph Russo of Associated Press, Dennis Dodd of CBS Sports, Mike Bellotti of ESPN and Eddie George of Fox have all put Bridgewater in their list of candidates for the Heisman. Smallwood, meanwhile, was named Tuesday as the national defensive player of the week by the Maxwell Football Club and the Football Writers Association of America. He is the national leader in tackles for loss.
Bridgewater, who took over as Louisville’s starting quarterback as a freshman when Will Stein went down with an injury, was unanimously chosen as the BIG EAST Rookie of the Year in 2011. Any questions regarding a sophomore slump were gone on Opening Day after Bridgewater completed 19 of 21 passes for 232 yards before coming out in the third quarter in a win against Kentucky.
Most recently, in the Cardinals’ 39-34 win against North Carolina, Bridgewater threw three touchdown passes and connected on 23 of 28 attempts for 279 yards, drawing praise from offensive coordinator Shawn Watson.
“He was rock-solid in his decision-making,” said Watson. “He didn’t make many mistakes. He actually had two burnt passes and two dropped passes in his incompletions, so if you do the quick math, he had a really good day. He had two incomplete passes.”
Smallwood similarly was outstanding from the start and has maintained a high level of play through three games. He had seven tackles and 3.5 tackles for loss in the season-opening whitewash of Massachusetts and had back-to-back 14-tackle efforts in the two games since. Not bad for a player who wasn’t projected as a middle linebacker when he arrived in Storrs. The injury bug forced Huskies coach Paul Pasqualoni to make a change before the 2011 season, moving Smallwood from his familiar spot at outside linebacker to the middle.
“We felt that Yawin, with his measurables, with his ability, might have a chance to help us at the position, based on the guys we had to choose from,” said Pasqualoni. “It was a rough start for him, but little by little, it’s gotten better and better.”
Smallwood started every game for Connecticut as a freshman and finished with 94 tackles, a total that was remarkably high for someone who had never played in the middle. Moving into his sophomore season, Smallwood planted the seeds that have led to his growth.
“I really like his devotion to football, said Pasqualoni. “He’s very steady, very dependable in everything he does – academically, off the field, in the weight room. Football is very important to him. He prepares hard.”
If nothing else is evident this year, it’s that Bridgewater and Smallwood both have the physical skills to be productive players. Bridgewater stands six-foot-three and nearly 220 pounds, is mobile enough to escape a pass rush and has an arm that rivals anyone in the nation’s. Smallwood, who is six-three and 235 pounds, brings the speed of a safety or outside linebacker at no expense to the hard hitting required of a middle linebacker.
The cerebral part of the game, though, has helped the two sophomores accelerate to their current level. With Bridgewater, that includes a mastery of the game plan and a thorough understanding of each player’s role within a specific play.
“Teddy uses all five weapons,” said Watson. “The way we are built, we attack coverage. If there is something in a specific type of coverage, he can work one side of the field or the other. He is using everything right now.”
With Smallwood, playing middle linebacker equates to serving as the defensive quarterback.
“It’s a position that’s very hard to play,” said Pasqualoni. “You’re right in the middle so the blocks come from different angles and you have to see things from your flank on either side. You have to learn where you belong in the run game and then you have to be able to react and respond to play-action passes and get into your coverage responsibilities. In this day, there are so many formations and there’s so much multiplicity with no-huddle, hurry-up offenses. It’s just not a very easy place to play.”
There is still a long way to go – at least nine games for each – before the true measure of their seasons can be evaluated. But despite the different paths they’ve taken, Bridgewater and Smallwood have put themselves at the top of their class.