The scoreboard is where it happens in college football. That’s what determines bragging rights and trash-talking limitations.
But touchdowns and field goals are not the only items to count. Schools also keep score of how many players they dispatch to the National Football League. It’s a solid snapshot of how well your program is progressing, as well as a tool that can be used to sell recruits on coming aboard.
For the University of Louisville, the scoreboard has added another round of flashing lights this season. The Cards have six rookies in the NFL, pumping the program’s total current contributions in the league to 16 guys.
That’s more than Arizona State. More than Kentucky. More than Arkansas, Washington or mighty Michigan State. More than Baylor or Texas Tech. More than a number of universities that are football-first athletic programs.
It’s an inspiring performance by the Louisville program, one that should direct credit to Bobby Petrino, Steve Kragthorpe and Charlie Strong, the three coaches who recruited and coached those 16 guys over the last decade. They’ve all been involved.
But it’s the six-player rookie class – Vikings quarterback Teddy Bridgewater; Bills linebacker Preston Brown; Jaguars receiver Damian Copeland; Bears running back Senorise Perry; Jets safety Calvin Pryor; and Eagles linebacker Marcus Smith – that elevated the Louisville program to its sweet 16 performance.
Bridgewater, Pryor and Smith are not surprise contributors. Each was a first-round pick in the 2014 NFL draft last May, a draft that featured only two programs with a trio of first-round picks: Louisville and Texas A&M.
But let’s look at Brown, Perry and Copeland. Nobody was convinced that those three guys were going to be playing for pay last fall.
Truth be told, Preston Brown has achieved more than any Louisville rookie, even though he was not drafted until the third round by Buffalo.
Brown was a big-time player at Louisville, one of Strong’s first recruits, a guy who arrived from high school football in Cincinnati and was plugged into the lineup from nearly the first snap. And he delivered.
Brown was usually all over the field, making tackles, tipping balls, supporting the run defense, contributing to the pass defense and making certain that opposing quarterbacks were always concerned by his presence.
The only quality Brown lacked was dazzling speed. That’s the only skill that kept Brown from being drafted higher than the third round.
But the Bills did their homework. They believed that Brown could be a solid player – and he has been. Buffalo started this season as one of the surprise teams in the NFL, and Brown contributed to that unexpected start. Although he was listed as a second-teamer on the depth chart, Brown participated in 20 tackles in the first two games alone. Preston Brown is a keeper.
Are Damian Copeland and Senorise Perry also keepers?
It’s too soon to tell.
Copeland, an undrafted free agent, will not play for Jacksonville this season because of a wrist injury. He will spend the entire season on injured reserve. He’ll be paid, but he won’t be able to contribute to the Jaguars’ offense – until 2015.
That opportunity should certainly come next season. Copeland proved he had the grit to make the difficult catches for Louisville. He’s a bit small for the every-down grind of the NFL, but he has a chance to be a solid situational contributor, especially in the slot.
If Copeland was a surprise, Perry was a stunner. Perry served as Dominique Brown’s backup for much of last season and battled back courageously from a serious knee injury, but never totally recovered his impressive first step.
He’s healthier now. The Bears learned that during training camp when Perry made the team in a triple-threat role as back-up halfback, kickoff return specialist and special teams tackler.
He won’t get many carries on a team that features Matt Forte running the football and trusts Jay Cutler to mix in about 30 passes per game. Yet as a kickoff return man, Perry has the most difficult job in the NFL: He is replacing Devin Hester, a guy who returned kickoffs as brilliantly as anybody who ever played the game.
Many people, especially in Minnesota, expect Bridgewater to become a star. It’s just unlikely that it will happen this season.
The Vikings are being patient with Bridgewater, who showed flashes of excellence so far this season. Bridgewater, who made his debut in week three against New Orleans and then started in week four against Atlanta (due to an injury to starting QB Matt Cassel), will discover that his time will come. Norv Turner, the Vikings’ offensive coordinator, loves the rookie’s poise and his ability to make crisp passes.
Pryor is the only guy in the group who has already worked his way into the starting lineup, although he has not made as many tackles for the Jets as Brown has with Buffalo. Pryor, a ferocious hitter, has demonstrated that he knows how to cover ground and deliver a tackle with authority.
Smith has work to do with the Eagles. He hasn’t played much, but some reasoning for this is that he starred at Louisville as a defensive end, but the Eagles are asking him to learn to play outside linebacker.
Making a position change while moving from college to the NFL is a daunting assignment. The game is faster. The athletes are stronger. The terminology is more complicated. It’s been a lot to digest for Smith.
But the Eagles are convinced that he will become a disruptive force for their defense, as he is fast, relentless and eager to learn. Smith said that several veterans on the Eagles’ defense are helping him with the transition.
The veteran contributors to Louisville’s NFL delegation should not be overlooked, especially receiver Josh Bellamy, who played his way onto the Bears’ roster after Chicago needed help because of injuries.
Elvis Dumervil, with the Ravens, remains the Cards’ current NFL kingpin. He’s still a massive force on the defensive line.
Eric Wood, finally healthy again, has emerged as one of the top offensive linemen for the Bills.
Gary Barnidge continues to catch passes and block as the Browns’ tight end.
Harry Douglas remains part of the Falcons’ explosive offense.
William Gay is a solid cornerback for the Steelers.
Breno Giacomini won a Super Bowl ring in Seattle last season, but jumped to the New York Jets for a bigger payday. His teammates include Pryor and veteran running back Bilal Powell. Greg Scruggs, back from an injury, decided to remain with Seattle, while Byron Stingily, a Kragthorpe recruit, has become a reliable blocker for the Tennessee Titans.
Blend six U of L rookies into the group, and the Cards can claim 16 players on current NFL rosters. Consider it another sign of the growth of the Louisville football program.