Though the Florida Gators and Louisville Cardinals have not faced each other on the football field since 1992, there is a good deal of familiarity between the two programs.
It starts with Louisville coach Charlie Strong, who made his name developing bruising defenses for the Gators prior to being named coach of the Cardinals in 2009.
But when Strong left Florida for Louisville, he brought with him the recognition of what the state has to offer in terms of high school talent and has since utilized that understanding to better his program.
Louisville, according to Shawn Watson, the team’s offensive coordinator, currently has 34 players from the state of Florida on its roster. Watson believes there is a correlation between that number increasing and Louisville becoming a better program.
“Those kids are the kids that have turned around our program,” Watson said.
Redshirt junior tailback Jeremy Wright, a native of Clermont, Fla., said Strong has been central in bringing talented played from Florida to Louisville. Despite the distance and relative lack of history compared with in-state schools, Strong has sold players on what Louisville has been building since he took over by using testimonies from players who have been in similar positions.
“He had us host some of the players so they could connect with people they already knew and build a friendship,” Wright said. “Having other guys on the roster [from the state of Florida] helps so much — just being so far from home and having to get used to going new places by yourself, it really makes a big difference.”
Headlining the crop of players from Florida is quarterback Teddy Bridgewater. Bridgewater, a sophomore who played for Miami Northwestern, continues to receive a steady dose of praise from both coaching staffs.
Watson, who is also in charge of coaching Louisville’s quarterbacks, spends a good bit of time with Bridgewater each day — the two breakdown film, discuss upcoming opponents and learn from one another.
Bridgewater, Watson believes, is already among the nation’s top quarterbacks and possesses a combination of skill and a relentless work ethic that can make him even greater.
“Teddy, from day one, he’s been a great student of the game,” Watson said. “He gets it. He understands football. He’s the best football player I have ever coached.”
Teammates have praised Bridgewater for his willingness to compete from the very beginning.
Receiver Damian Copeland said Bridgewater is special, saying, “He wasn’t an ordinary freshman. He was like an upperclassman. He stayed in the film room, and he stayed in the playbook.”
And with talented players like Bridgewater, Louisville will likely stay in the national discussion, something the Cardinals were slipping out of just three years ago.
But by using the roots he established in Florida, Strong has been able to brighten the program with players from the Sunshine State.
“There’s a lot of strong ties with our staff to the high school coaches and the community of coaches down there.” Watson said. “So it’s been huge for us.”