LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) -- As painful as the 2018 University of Louisville football season was to watch from the outside – and it was no picnic – we can only imagine the difficulty of going through it on the inside.
But thanks to a few Louisville football players opening up about last season’s experience, we can imagine it just a bit better.
And it’s important to do that, because these aren’t just football players, they’re people. They lose a football game and don’t just have to deal with the social media venom, but they’ve got to show up in class two days later, and walk around campus, or out in the community.
It takes a toll on you.
“It’s tough for anybody to go through something like that. . . . It wasn’t just one thing. It was a combination of a lot of things going on, from the coaches to the players, we just — it was a lot of stuff,” quarterback Jawon Pass said. ” . . . I feel like going through that made us better. We took the lesson from it, instead of the bad part. We want to turn it into a good thing.”
Every player I’ve spoken to points to the same game as the point when the air went out of the balloon – a late game loss to Florida State.
“We were supposed to win that game,” wide receiver Seth Dawkins said. “We were up late, and then we had a bad pass play. I was hurt that game and on the sidelines. When that happened, it felt like all the air went out of the stadium.”
After the game, Petrino took the blame publicly for calling a pass play instead of running the ball, working the clock to kick a field goal for a six-point lead, and playing the percentages of stopping a length-of-the-field FSU drive late.
In the locker room, however, several players at the end of last season said Petrino didn’t shoulder the blame as readily, and in fact went after players for not executing.
“We still had some fight in us,” Dawkins said. “We came back and practiced hard the next week. But looking back, that play took the air out of the balloon.”
It would not be there for the rest of the season. And little by little, the losses started to wear the team down. For players who had seen the heights during Lamar Jackson’s Heisman-season heyday, it was particularly difficult.
“We went from 9-1 and legit in the run for the playoffs to 2-10, and it took a toll on us, mentally and emotionally,” Dawkins said. “You’re asking, ‘Dang, where did we go wrong?’ You start looking at guys starting to miss weight room, just a few times, or missing class and having to run, any little details.”
Linebacker Dorian Etheridge saw the same things.
“Even my freshmen year when we had a pretty decent season, there were guys who had their own agendas," he said. "But it was fine because we still were, like, a good team. But you can’t have agendas on the team when you don’t have Lamar. That’s real. That’s real. So losing Lamar has forced us to become more of a team.”
Even in the depths of last season’s losing streak, Etheridge said a core of players hung in and stayed together.
“Going through something like that last year, it felt like it was just us. Like we were alone,” he said. “All those other guys, the people that would usually come visit, just stopped coming. That just comes with losing. We didn’t hold grudges or anything. But we were around each other and it was just us. You either were going to split apart or come together, and for the most part, a group of us came together.”
Etheridge said that the group that stuck it out formed a tight bond, to the point that even nonverbal communication between players was meaningful.
“Honestly it was just feeling the presence of everybody, that can play a big role,” he said. “You don’t have to talk to somebody all the time. Sometimes you can catch somebody’s eye for two seconds. These guys in the locker room right now that went through last season, we respect each other. Our opinions are heard.”
Of course, there’s a different coach running the locker room now. Scott Satterfield has made some changes for the better, players say.
“Last year was very confusing, for the whole team,” Dawkins said. “We didn’t know who was going to play the next game. You had Sunday off, Monday film, then practice on Tuesday. On Tuesday practice, we didn’t know who was going to be on the field. We really didn’t know what was going on from one game to the next – or even one series to the next. We had a game at Syracuse where it went from Puma to Malik to back to Puma to Malik to (Sean) McCormack. I felt for those guys.”
Now, Dawkins said, the entire mood of the football complex has changed. There’s more anticipation and a bit less dread.
“I think you started to see guys scared to do something wrong for fear of getting cussed out,” he said. “I don’t care, I’ve been cussed out so many times before. But you’d walk in the building and immediately start looking over your shoulder. Now that’s gone. Last year I didn’t lose my passion, but it was a tough year. Even coming to practice, it began to feel down.”
Despite that, Dawkins said, he didn’t lose confidence in himself, though he knows others did.
“I never went into a game thinking we weren’t going win,” Dawkins said. “You lose like that, you have to look in the mirror. Of course. But I went into every game believing we were going to win. . . . The whole thing was a reality check. We got punched in the face. But when that happens, it’s either fight or flight. So these people that are in our locker room now, they’re fighters.”
In the end, Satterfield hopes that will pay some dividends on the field. Many of the off-season drills have been designed to strengthen the will of players, as much as strengthening their bodies. He’s working to build trust.
“I didn’t watch any film from last year,” he said. “It wasn’t very pretty from what I heard. So I didn’t really want to watch it. What we did do was I got the video staff to pull out highlights of some guys. So I watched clips of some guys to see what their talent was and what they could do. Then we can kind of move and put them in some spots where we think they can help us.”
Clean slates, new start. It doesn’t mean the hard times are behind this program. But what remains after last season’s disaster is a group that badly wants to make amends.
“They’re hungry, they’re eager,” Satterfield said. “These guys want to be a part of something special. That’s No. 1. And I’ve also learned that they want to have fun. So we’ve tried to implement a lot of things that are fun to them, that get their heads around and really enjoy the process. We talk a lot about process. And we know it’s going to take a lot of hard work. But I think they’re having fun, and working harder probably than they’ve ever worked. And that’s our goal as coaches for these players.”
Dawkins closed the door on last season with this thought: “A lot of people think that we quit last year. That’s not true. We just didn’t get things done. I expect us to play hard every game and let the rest take care of itself. I don’t have any win predictions. We need to take it week by week. We’re worried about Notre Dame right now and whatever we have to do to compete with them. Really I’m just worried about August 4. Then we’ll take August 5.”
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