CRAWFORD | As he takes over at QB, Reggie deserves the same pati - WDRB 41 Louisville News

CRAWFORD | As he takes over at QB, Reggie deserves the same patience Teddy got

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LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) -- The comparisons are going to be tough to resist, I know. Teddy Bridgewater took over as quarterback at the University of Louisville as a true freshman, replaced an injured starter named Will, and relied heavily on a high school teammate (actually two of them) at receiver.

On Saturday against Wake Forest, Reggie Bonnafon will take over as a true freshman. He's replacing the injured Will Gardner. He'll have a high school teammate right there at wideout -- James Quick.

But don't put the Bridgewater tag on Bonnafon, unless you're willing to afford him the time that Bridgewater had.

If you'll remember, after leading U of L to a win over UK in relief, Bridgewater became the permanent starter for the Cards, and showed his ability in fits and starts. But he took over a program that was rebuilding. He inherited a fan base that was ecstatic about him pulling out a win at UK, and that was surprised when his team reached a bowl game in his freshman season.

Everything Bridgewater did was gravy.

Already this season, we've seen that the curve Cardinal fans are grading on is much steeper, not only for Gardner, but perhaps also for Bonnafon. If that's the case, it's unfair.

Gardner, before the injury that knocked him out of the game at FIU, had a higher passing efficiency rating than Bridgewater as a freshman, better touchdown-to-interception ratio, far more yards per game. He's thrown for eight TDs in four games (really three, when you account for time on the bench.) Bridgewater threw for 14 touchdowns in 13 games.

The differing offenses account for some of that, as does Gardner's advanced age, he's been on the sidelines for two seasons at U of L. But they don't account for all of it. Gardner, after all, hadn't played significant snaps in three seasons before taking over at U of L this year.

Bridgewater became a great quarterback. For U of L, he might've been a once-in-a lifetime quarterback. But he started slowly. The Cardinals averaged 21.9 points a game his freshman season and gave up 20.1. They finished 7-6 after Bridgewater got beaten up by N.C. State in their bowl game.

Those things are all worth remembering, as is the diminished playbook offensive coordinator Shawn Watson had to live with while playing Bridgewater as a true freshmen. Every week, they'd install a little more. But there are just certain things most true freshmen aren't ready to do. Fans don't want to hear it, but it's true.

Bonnafon will still likely have more options at his disposal because Petrino's playbook is larger. But it's always important to remember, a coach's playbook is only as large as his quarterback can execute.

So those should be the ground rules going into Bonnafon's first career start at U of L.

Mistakes will be made. He's one week removed from the funeral of his father, for goodness' sakes. In one sense, it's a blessing. It gives him something to devote his mind to in such a difficult time. But how much more challenging does it get? To jump back into the fire after a week as emotional as the one he just had?

All of this is a very direct way of preaching patience. And I'm preaching it to myself, as well as to fans.

Whatever your expectation of U of L entering this season, it was probably made based on an experienced Gardner at quarterback and DeVante Parker playing wide receiver. The Cardinal offense now, however, is in survival mode.

Most fans I've talked to this week, and even some I encountered while hosting Jody Demling's Early Birds show on WKRD, don't quite share that mindset. They think Petrino is such a great offensive coach that he can plug and play different pieces into the lineup and produce big numbers. But college football doesn't work like that.

Bonnafon does open new areas for Petrino to explore offensively. Gardner is a good runner, but Petrino wasn't eager to use him in that way for just this scenario -- an injuring forcing him to put a true freshman into a pressure situation before he's ready.

Is Bonnafon ready? He got a one-quarter tryout at Virginia, and Petrino went back to Gardner. I don't have much doubt they view Bonnafon as a major option for the future. The injury to Gardner just made the decision for them, and made it right now.

Bonnafon's ability and willingness to run give Petrino some new options in the running game, which he badly wants to establish after the past two games have yielded a total of 91 net yards. In three games against Football Bowl Subdivision defenses, U of L is averaging 2.1 yards per carry.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of Bonnafon's debut will be to see how Petrino uses him. If he's effective as a runner, it could help solidify roles all along the U of L offensive attack. As it has stood so far this season, there has been no fair finish to this sentence: U of L's offensive identity is __________. The Cards need to fill in that blank during the next two games.

The guess here is that Wake Forest will do the same thing defensively that FIU did, and to a degree Virginia, stuffing the run and daring the quarterback to beat them with the pass. Bonnafon can do that. I'd expect to see a couple of early shots downfield from Bonnafon, to establish his ability to move the team in the passing game.

But what are the keys for this freshman heading into his first college start? There are two that should be first and foremost.

First, don't give the ball away. Turnovers have been a problem for the Cardinals this season. Keep possession and you give yourself a chance.

Second, keep moving forward. There have been entirely too many negative-yardage plays for the Cards this season, and that takes the play-calling weapon out of Petrino's hands in some ways. Bonnafon's ability to make something out of nothing, to avoid pressure and maybe get a yard or two, will be very important. Stefan LeFors was one of the best at that Louisville ever had. If Bonnafon can keep away from negative-yardage plays, the offense will move.

But regardless of what he does, he deserves the chance to make mistakes, to learn on the job, and even to win and lose. That's what Teddy got. Reggie deserves the same.

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