Fall camp is officially underway at the University of Louisville, which means the on-field battle for the Cardinals starting quarterback position is once again underway.
Following a spring practice that saw the trio of Kyle Bolin, Reggie Bonnafon and Tyler Ferguson all work as the first team quarterback, the competition during fall camp is even more crowded. The addition of rookie Lamar Jackson, along with the return of a now healthy Will Gardner, gives head coach Bobby Petrino and offensive coordinator Garrick McGee a lot of talent at the key position.
“It's pretty cool," said McGee, who also tutors the quarterbacks. "I always tell these guys, 'I want to walk in my meeting room and everybody sitting around the table is a great player.' Right now I'm probably as close to that as I've ever been.”
The group of five, who McGee describes as “very good friends,” will be split among practice sessions during the early days of fall practice. After finishing spring practice in impressive fashion, Bonnafon will begin as the first team quarterback, with Bolin and Gardner also rotating in that spot while with the veterans group. Ferguson and Jackson will participate in the newcomers session.
“These first four days we have split practices,” said Petrino. “We'll have Lamar Jackson and Tyler Ferguson go with what we call the newcomers, though they're not all newcomers. Then with the vets, we'll have Reggie (Bonanfon), Kyle (Bolin) and Will (Gardner) take the reps with them. We do a lot of reps in practice. They'll all get their different work. The first day we'll emphasize Reggie more with the No. 1s, the second day Will, the third day Kyle so that they get more reps than the other guys do with the No. 1 offense, but overall as the whole day works out, they get about an equal amount.”
For Gardner, who started seven games in 2014, it marks the return to full on-field participation since he injured his knee against Boston College on November 8.
“Yeah, he's been completely cleared by the medical staff. He said he feels better than he has in three years,” said Petrino, who further added that was surprised at Gardner's ability to return from a third knee injury with confidence.
“It shocks me a little bit. When you have a third knee surgery, the first thing that comes into your mind is, 'Is he going to be able to do this? Where is he going to get to?' As I watched him progress in his rehab and do everything, I was kind of surprised right off the bat how much flexibility he had in that, how quickly he was progressing. It was almost like, 'Make sure you're listening to exactly what the medical staff is saying and don't try to do too much.' Because immediately it seems like he was coming back from it quickly.”
Those bond that the group continues to form, where they push each other on the field and spend time together during down time, is a crucial element to the success of the offense.
“All five of them now are really just concentrating on us winning,” said McGee. “Whatever we have to do to get our team in a position to win. That's what they are concentrating on. I'm sure deep down they all want to be the starting quarterback - they better that's what I would expect from them – but in reality, I want them just to concentrate on getting better every single day. Work on your game and get yourself in a position to help our team win.”
Each has proven their focus on improving, not only themselves, but the quality of the position as a whole.
“They really work hard to grow and learn,” McGee said. “I think they feel themselves getting better everyday, learning more about football and concepts, how to see the game.”
With each quarterback providing different strengths – accuracy, ability to run, understanding of the schemes – the naming of the eventual starting quarterback should become clear for the players as fall camp progresses.
“I think they'll get the message once we start practicing,” McGee explained. “We'll come back in the evening time and evaluate each practice. They'll get tough communication about how they did on the practice session. Then we'll go back and practice again and each day as we evaluate the practice with the players they'll start to figure out what's going on and what they have to develop and get better at for us to put them out there. Once we decide who the quarterback is going to be, it won't be surprise with the players because we are open with them everyday.”
For the staff, the hope is that the starter will begin to separate himself though both ability and leadership during the first few weeks of camp.
“They're really in charge of it,” McGee said of the players. “If no one does, we'll have to make a decision before the game, but hopefully one of those guys takes off, takes charge, starts to be the leader of the team, and starts to execute the offense at a high level. That's what we are looking for.”
The Cardinals will hold four practices that will be open to the public, beginning on Saturday and Sunday. The veterans will work out first at 2:30 p.m., while the newcomers hit the field at 6:30 p.m., on each of those two days. The final two practices open to the public are on Monday and Tuesday at 4:20 p.m.