LOUISVILLE, KY. (WDRB) -- We've gotten used to having the "year of the quarterback" around here. Whether it was Tim Couch dueling Chris Redman, Dave Ragone and Jared Lorenzen or Brian Brohm and Andre' Woodson clashing, if there's one thing football fans in these parts have seen with good regularity over the years, it's been a high level of quarterback play.
I don't know if people expected that this year, but in the early season at least, the passing games produced by the Bluegrass State have been some of the best in the nation, with Louisville, Kentucky and Western Kentucky all completing better than 70 percent of their passes so far.
It's no surprise coming from University of Louisville sophomore Teddy Bridgewater. He was expected to make a big jump coming off a full offseason to absorb the Cardinals' offense. He ranks second in the nation (to West Virginia's Geno Smith) in completion percentage (at 81.7 percent, Smith is at 88.9) and in the top 15 nationally in most other categories, including efficiency rating, where Bridgewater is No. 12 nationally at 173.31.
More of a surprise is University of Kentucky sophomore Maxwell Smith, who wasn't even officially named the starter until a couple of weeks before the season started. Smith ranks No. 12 nationally, with 317 yards per game, and is 16th nationally in completion percentage, He's eighth nationally in total passing yardage and his six TD passes are tied for third nationally.
Then there's WKU's Kawaun Jakes. A season ago he ranked 92nd in efficiency and WKU ranked near the bottom nationally in yards, yards per game and efficiency. So far this season, Jakes ranks No. 24 in efficiency and No. 23 in completion percentage at 70.4. And consider this about his numbers -- half of them were against the University of Alabama's defense, which a year ago ranked second in the nation against the pass.
In fact, only one team completed better than 64 percent of its passes against the Crimson Tide all last season, and that was LSU in the title game. Last Saturday against Alabama, Jakes completed 64.5 percent and had a passer rating nearly 14 points higher than Michigan's Denard Robinson the week before.
BRIDGEWATER: He put on 20 pounds in the offseason, but it's his stature that has improved. He's become a polished player, one who not only makes the proper reads in the passing game but has been able to get the team into the right protections and calls in the running game.
But he's also doing little things -- dumping the ball if he's scrambling and can't find anything rather than forcing it in or taking a sack. He hit 10 different receivers against Missouri State. And consider this -- he's completed 49 of 60 passes, but of those 11 incompletions, four were drops and two were thrown away intentionally. Take away just the drops and he'd be at 88.3 percent with at least one more touchdown.
"He is a really great football player," U of L coach Charlie Strong said. "He has been able to get better week by week. He is placing the ball in the right spots and the receivers are catching the ball. You also have to look at how we've been running the ball so well. This takes the pressure off of Teddy. He's seeing the receivers left wide open and throwing the ball where it needs to be."
Inside Bridgewater's numbers: If third down is where a quarterback truly rises or stands out, the Bridgewater has been special. This season, he's the nation's fourth-rated third down passer with a rating of 212.74 (Notre Dame's Everett Golson, Clemson's Tajh Boyd and USC's Matt Barkley are the three ahead of him), and his third-down completion percentage of 84.6 (on 11 of 13 passing for 159 yards and a touchdown) is second in the nation.
Maybe the best sign that Bridgewater is getting close is that Strong has started to focus more on where he needs to improve than on what he's doing right. On Monday, Strong said he'd like to see Bridgewater improve his mechanics and finding open receivers. He noted a couple that Bridgewater missed against Missouri State.
SMITH: The right peg in the right hole. That's all you can say for Smith's talents when matched up with UK's new hurry-up offense. Smith is a quick decision-maker and very accurate passer, both of which lead to success in the no-huddle look UK is showing.
But the hurry-up wouldn't work if Smith didn't have the talent to recognize things quickly, make good reads and calls before the snap and then deliver the ball in a hurry.
Not every quarterback is suited for a three-step drop and making super-quick reads in his progressions, but Smith seems to thrive in it.
He says it goes back to his days playing on teams with far more than 11 guys to a side back on the playgrounds in California. Whatever it was, it has UK's offense humming better than it did at any point last season. And UK coach Joker Phillips only expects Smith to keep improving.
"He's a pup. He was a pup last year," Phillips said. "You just don't understand how tough it is, how really, really tough it is to go into those types of environments and make plays. He really didn't have many one reps. He was playing with a bunch of inexperienced receivers. Those guys are much more experienced or more comfortable. Some of those guys were uncomfortable last year in understanding our packages. A lot of it has to do just with him maturing.
"We knew that he would someday -- I shouldn't say we knew. Every time you sign somebody, that's what you think, but we hoped this would be him someday. Again, we decided in five practices that this (system) would benefit him, and it has. It's not only benefited him, it's benefited some young receivers. Our system is a little bit more simple also. It gives those guys a chance to find grass and catch the ball and get up the field for us."
Inside Smith's numbers: Smith has been one of the nation's best second-half passers. He has thrown for more second-half yards than all but three QBs in the FBS (Ryan Nassib of Syracuse, Houston's David Piland and Troy's Corey Robinson) but has done it on fewer attempts than all those.
Probably more impressive, however, are Smith's numbers in the red zone. He's 11-for-11 inside the opponent's 20-yard line, for 72 yards and five touchdowns.
JAKES: His improvement was evident from the opening kickoff this season. He threw for four touchdowns and ran for another in WKU's season-opening win, and while Alabama is a challenge for any quarterback, WKU is looking for big things from the passing game this Saturday against a UK defense that has struggled.
Phillips noted that the improvement of Jakes has added a dimension to a WKU offense that already had a reputation for "downhill running."
Inside Jakes' numbers: Like Bridgewater, Jakes makes plays on third down. He's completing 80 percent of his third-down passes. He's also been at his best in the third quarter, completing 12 of 14 passes for 86 yards and an interception.
Copyright 2012 WDRB News. All Rights Reserved.
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