LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) – Trivia question: In spring workouts, who was the fastest player on the University of Louisville football team?

Most of the general public would answer Heisman Trophy winner Lamar Jackson. Most hard-core Louisville fans, however, were not surprised to learn that it was actually cornerback Jaire Alexander, who ran the 40-yard dash in 4.3 seconds.

I asked him about that earlier this week when the junior from Charlotte sat down for a short discussion in a meeting room of the Howard Schnellenberger Football Complex. Alexander caught a lot of people’s eyes last season. His five interceptions were a team-high. And he finished 15th in the nation in punt return average at 10.65 per return.

But it was a two-week stretch – in a pair of games with ESPN’s College GameDay fanfare in September -- that made him a name to remember. With Florida State visiting Papa John’s Cardinal Stadium, he had a 69-yard punt return for a touchdown, and ran another one back 61 yards.

Everybody was buzzing about Jackson and his 5-touchdown game against the Seminoles. Jackson even made the cover of Sports Illustrated. But Alexander’s phone was blowing up, too.

“It was a crazy experience,” he said. “Running back that punt against Florida State. A lot of things changed after that, for the better. Before doing that, it was OK, as far as me feeling the flow of the game. But once that happened, the boost in my confidence, boost in my morale, you know. Shoot, it was just exciting. The fans rushed the field. It was like I was in some kind of movie, some kind of football movie. Where are the cameras?”

There would be a sequel. Two weeks later at Clemson, Alexander picked off eventual Heisman runner-up Deshaun Watson twice. Pretty soon, opposing quarterbacks were avoiding him. He wound up with nine passes broken up on the season.

But something else caught Louisville coach Bobby Petrino’s eye earlier this summer, when he was conducting a camp for young players. He noticed Alexander taking time with individual kids, more than just running them through drills, but demonstrating and teaching, and taking time to talk to them.

“I love working with kids. Anything to help kids out, I love doing, said Alexander, who said he wants to work with kids in some capacity when his football days are over. “I’m really passionate about youth development in sports. Being at that camp was a great experience for me.”

I asked him what he said to kids when he was talking to them, what kind of advice he gave them.

“Block out noise, block out negativity,” he said. “People will count you out your whole life. Sometimes you’ve got to push through to prevail. It’s all about how you perform, how you handle adversity. Keep your head up. Things turn for the better eventually.”

Having had the kind of season he had a year ago, Alexander knew two things heading into the coming season: Opposing defenses are likely to steer clear of him, and he needed to stay hungry, to push himself to improve.

Physically, he added some weight and muscle, but also added speed.

“It feels good,” he said. “Hard work pays off. Some days I get up and look the mirror and say, who knows? Maybe linebacker?”

He also watches a lot of game tape – but not of himself, and not of other defensive backs. Instead, he watches the best wideouts in the National Football League. Why? Because what they are doing is what the best wideouts in college will try to emulate.

“I YouTube all the wideouts,” Alexander said. “Antonio Brown, Julio Jones, Odell Beckham, and it’s funny because, some people are saying, you’re a DB, why aren’t you watching the DBs? But I’d rather watch the wideouts, because I’m trying to capitalize on the mistakes these best wideouts make other guys make.”

He said he doesn’t put a great deal of extra effort into his return game. He said that’s instinct.

“I have to give a lot of credit to the other 10 guys out there with me,” he said. “I just run the ball. . . . In practice I just work on catching punts on running to the end zone for conditioning. But games? Just find the daylight.”

The Louisville defense has made the adjustment from the over-the-top fiery Todd Grantham to a younger voice, Peter Sirmon at defensive coordinator. The defense has been simplified somewhat, but Alexander said it uses similar concepts, and the change has helped quite a few players to understand things better and maybe play faster.

“Playbook is not as complex as Grantham, so it’s a lot easier to catch on and get the hang of things once you categorize them in a certain area,” he said. “OK, I’ve got this on this play. So that is coming together pretty smoothly. It’s similar concepts. I like this defense. It allows us to do multiple things in different ways on defense. Coach Sirmon really takes is time and works with us. He always tells us he doesn’t know what we don’t know. And I think that’s helped build the character of our defense.”

Last season, when the Cardinals had things going, even after the loss to Clemson, and the national publicity began to ratchet up, in some ways it was like nothing anyone has ever seen with U of L sports. The spotlight of college football at that level is unmatched, even by basketball at its highest levels, even as big as basketball is around here.

Louisville’s players noticed. And they liked it. Yes, Alexander said, they struggled at the end of the season. But this year, they’re eager to get back to where they were a year ago – and this time to stay there.

“Every year I’ve been here has been better than the last,” Alexander said. “Even knowing what happened last year, this year is going to be better. That’s our goal, to be better than last year. Everybody’s looking good. . . . Last year was trial and error for us. We started out hot, got the publicity that we wanted, then didn’t finish it off the way we wanted. And knowing how good we were to start the season off, if we can keep that same pace and maintain, then the sky’s the limit. It boosted our confidence, knowing what we can do, and what we have coming back.”

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