As part of our Texans 'On the Clock' draft profiles, we reached out to various media members who covered the featured prospect. In this week's installment we sat down with Eric Crawford of WDRB in Louisville.
Eric Crawford joined WDRB in June of 2012 after 12 years at The Courier-Journal, half of which he spent as University of Louisville sports beat reporter and, more recently, as senior sports columnist.
HoustonTexans.com: What was the perception of Teddy Bridgewater when he first arrived on campus at Louisville? Was he a prized recruit, and was he expected to play right away?
Crawford: Yes. He was a prized recruit. Bridgewater's commitment was announced while Louisville was in Florida to play in the Beef O'Brady's Bowl in St. Petersburg. It was already an optimistic time for the program, which had unexpectedly qualified for a bowl in coach Charlie Strong's first season. Bridgewater was seen almost immediately as a next-level type of recruit that not only was a good "get" for Louisville, but they type of charismatic player who would influence others from the Miami area to follow him to Louisville.
That, in fact, turned out to be the case. When Louisville faced Miami in the Russell Athletic Bowl as a junior, the Cards had 24 players from South Florida on the roster. It was generally believe he would take over as starter at some point during his freshman season, but Bridgewater did not start right away. Three games into his freshman season, however, he was pressed into service, coming in off the bench to throw a pair of touchdown passes to lead Louisville to a road victory over rival Kentucky. He has been a starter ever since.
HoustonTexans.com: Bridgewater exploded on the scene as a freshman, not only starting for the Cardinals but also being named Big East Freshman of the Year. Can you talk a little about that first season and how he quickly adapted to the college game?
Crawford: Bridgewater was asked to do a lot of things before he was ready as a freshman, and the coaching staff was working to adapt things on the fly to what he could do. He played instinctively, and found ways to make plays even when what the play called for broke down. He threw for 2,195 yards and 14 touchdowns, but also had 12 interceptions. His offensive line was banged up toward the end of the season, and three of his interceptions came in the bowl game when he was sacked five times.
As soon as the season was over, he began an intensive regimen of film study and work with quarterbacks coach Shawn Watson, and over the next two seasons threw just 12 interceptions, including only four as a junior.
HoustonTexans.com: What's his role on the team? Is he viewed as a leader? How does he interact with his teammates?
Crawford: One day during spring practice before his junior season, Bridgewater overheard some teammates talking about him when he was sitting out of a drill. "There's the Heisman candidate, taking it easy." It stung him. So he went to his head coach and offensive coordinator and asked that the school do nothing to promote him for the Heisman. He didn't want his teammates seeing him taking the spotlight off the team.
Bridgewater is not an incredibly vocal person, but he earned immediate respect of his teammates as a freshman for his ability to take a hit, get back up and stay positive. As a sophomore, he earned more respect when he dragged himself into the regular-season finale at Rutgers with a broken wrist and badly sprained ankle and led a comeback that gave the Cardinals a berth in the Sugar Bowl.
"He's a guy," his teammate and longtime friend Eli Rogers said, "you know has paid the price with you. You see how hard he goes, and it makes you want to do that."
Rogers has perhaps a special insight into Bridgewater. During high school, when he learned his mother was suffering of AIDS and things got rough at home, Bridgewater brought Rogers to live with him. He knew what it was like. His own mother was battling breast cancer.
Bridgewater's is a quiet kind of leadership, but has been effective at the college level.
HoustonTexans.com: In your dealings with him, how would you describe his personality and how he goes about engaging with the media?
Crawford: Bridgewater was a player who sought to get out of the media spotlight as a freshman, but at the end of a two-day ESPN "car wash" all-platform series of interviews, he said he's more comfortable in that role now.
"A year ago -- I can sit here and say that I didn't ever want to go through anything like this," Bridgewater said. "I'm not the type of guy who wants to sit and talk about myself. But I've accepted it because it comes with the role and everything. And I'm thankful for every chance I get to share my story."
He's become more polished with the media, to the point where, when facing a difficult series of questions about whether he might've signed autographs for money before this season — as Johnny Manziel was being accused of doing — he handled the queries deftly and even was able to put his own mark on the discussion by arguing against players being paid. "To me," he said, "education is priceless".
HoustonTexans.com: As he grew as a player, what were some key improvements you saw from his as a quarterback? If you can, compare his play from first arriving on campus to the QB he is now.
Crawford: The biggest difference is the understanding of the game. Not only did he benefit from having the same offensive coordinator for three years, but the time he spent studying opposing defenses and his own offense made him, in addition to being a very accurate passer — which he was coming into college — but one who made the right decision far more often than not. His ability to connect deep is good. His ability to subtly elude pressure is good. Over the course of his career, U of L coaches gave him more and more responsibility on the field to read the defense as he saw it and get the team into the right play, especially in no-huddle situations.
HoustonTexans.com: From a pure physical standpoint, what would say his strengths are?
Crawford: He's not going to be the fastest quarterback in the draft, nor the one with the strongest arm, nor the one with the best size. But he may be the most complete quarterback available. He is a past-first quarterback. He has the ability to run, but doesn't want to. His mechanics are good. He can play under center or from the shotgun. He can deliver a crisp, accurate ball rolling out to either side. He has the ability to keep his head up under pressure, and doesn't get antsy in the pocket.
HoustonTexans.com: How comparable is Louisville's offense to what you'd see at the NFL level? Do you think there will be a big adjustment period for him at this level?
Crawford: Because Louisville runs a pro-set out of multiple formations and has used him primarily as a pocket passer, he should be comfortable in an NFL offense, though the complexity will be much greater than what he's seen at the college level.
HoustonTexans.com: From what you know, how would you describe his love for the game? Is he seen as a film rat, or how much does he value preparation?
Crawford: The best story about his preparation is this one. Every year when the NCAA football video game comes out, he spends hours customizing his Louisville team to run the plays it actually runs. Then he customizes the Cardinals' opponents to run defenses that most approximate what you would see from those teams on the field.
As a result, even when he was just sitting around playing video games, he was mentally preparing. He called these "virtual reps." He not only studies his own game, but historical game. I remember interviewing him one day and him throwing out something Charlie Ward used to do. He's serious about football. He was not a guy that went out to clubs or was known to hit parties on the weekend.
HoustonTexans.com: As he goes through the NFL evaluation process, what do you think teams will like the most about him? What weaknesses will concern them?
Crawford: I think the questions over Bridgewater are going to be over his physical attributes. Is he big enough? Does he have a big enough arm? Is he durable enough for the grind of an NFL season? Those are going to be the questions. Because otherwise, NFL teams will love him. He has approached this game as a professional from a very young age. He tried to quit the game in high school because his mother had breast cancer and he was the only man in the house. She wouldn't let him. She told him he had a gift.
The family moved a dozen times in his growing up years. I've been to the neighborhoods where he lived. One day in 2012 I was down there with another reporter from our station and there had been a drive-by shooting just three days before. Bridgewater was able to come out of that seemingly untouched by the temptations around him.
"I knew my purpose," he told me. "The outside influences, I can put on the back burner. I never thought about other kids having it better or worse. Everywhere we moved, I was able to adapt. I played basketball, football, baseball, ran some track. . . . I find myself calling or texting my mom and saying, 'Thank you for raising me the way you did, and telling me, you better get back out there on track. Because looking back, there was nothing for me back there. If I had not stuck with football and with school, I don't know where I would be right now."
"My purpose in life is just to give back, you know, be that picture to change the stereotype of where I'm from. Where I'm from right now, people would call me a superhero. I'm doing what all the children back in Miami dreamed of doing, being on national TV, impacting lives. You kind of feel that as a responsibility, to not let people down. . . . My biggest fear is letting people down. It's what makes me work the way I do."
His story is pretty compelling stuff. NFL teams will love Bridgewater as a person. There aren't many like him. They won't question his intelligence or character. They'll have to make a decision on his game.
HoustonTexans.com: If you were the GM of the Houston Texans, would you select him first overall in this year's NFL Draft?
Crawford: I've covered Bridgewater for three years and I've become a believer in him. I think his association with Louisville coach Charlie Strong really helped solidify him, and make him a more serious person and player. He has a chance, at the high-end, to be an Aaron Rodgers-type of player, with sneaky speed and great accuracy. And if he doesn't reach that level, you still have someone who is going to be intensely focused on learning the game and getting better, and a person with the ability to earn the respect of his teammates.