LOUISVILLE — Kyle Bolin, the Lexington native competing to be Louisville’s quarterback this season, first played the position as a second-grader. (For those alarmed by the game’s inherent violence, it was flag football.)
Beginning as a 7-year-old, Bolin liked shouldering responsibility.
“I’m a guy that really enjoys pressure, and having all that pressure on me,” he said this month. “Understanding in order for us to be successful, I’ve got to do my job. I’ve had my times when I didn’t perform as well as I’d like to.
“But that stage, I love being on stage.”
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Of course, U of L’s competition at quarterback this preseason involved a wide-ranging casting call. Will Gardner and Reggie Bonnafon made Bolin the least experienced of three holdovers from last season. Also in the mix was athletic freshman Lamar “I-beat-Rajon-Rondo-in-a-foot-race” Jackson.
Bolin has shown he’s got the acting chops to be at center stage. His star-turn in a relief role against Kentucky last November was the ultimate in courage, which Ernest Hemingway famously defined as grace under pressure.
“It was so surreal,” he said. “Just the situation: Last game of the season; if we win the game we go to a big bowl; senior night; and then our biggest rival, Kentucky; my hometown.
“So the entire situation was just unbelievable.”
Gardner’s injury earlier in the season elevated Bolin to Bonnafon’s understudy against Kentucky. Then Bonnafon crumpled to the Papa John’s Stadium turf early in the second quarter and stayed down with a knee injury.
“Being the mom, I’m watching him get warmed up, thinking, ‘Oh, wow, he’s warming up,’” Monica Bolin said of the elder of her two sons. “Then ‘Oh my gosh, he’s going in. He’s playing!’”
Bolin completed 21 of 31 passes for 381 yards and three touchdowns. A 13-0 deficit when he entered the game became a 44-40 Louisville victory.
“Looking back on it, it was quite strange because I wasn’t nervous,” Bolin said. “I just looked at it as there’s nothing I can do about it. This is my time. I can sit here and freak out and play hesitant. Or I can go out there and just do what I’ve done my whole entire life.”
While Bolin embraced the possibilities that come with being thrust onto the stage, his parents watched anxiously.
“It would have been something to videotape me going a little bit crazy,” Monica Bolin said.
Added Kerry Bolin, the player’s father, “I was watching the game, but my feet were turned toward the exit gate. That’s the truth.”
As this was being written, Louisville Coach Bobby Petrino seemed nowhere near naming a starting quarterback.
“Kyle’s strength is decision-making and understanding,” Petrino said. “He’s got to get the ball out on time. That’s a big thing for him because he has to make up for arm strength (with) timing, which a lot of great quarterbacks have done.”
That assessment did not sting. “I understand that,” Bolin said. “I’m not going to be the guy who throws the ball 80 yards or throws a 40-yard bullet.” Anticipation and accuracy must be Bolin’s calling cards. He cited Drew Brees and Peyton Manning as quarterbacks who thrived this way. “We’re taught you never throw a ball more than 40 yards down the football field,” Bolin said. “And I can throw it 50.”
Coach: Bobby Petrino (the Grover Cleveland of college football coaches is in his second season of a second of two non-consecutive terms as Louisville’s coach; 41-9 in four seasons from 2003-06; 9-4 last season). Overall record as a college head coach, counting an 8-4 season for Western Kentucky in 2013, is 92-34.
Last season: 9-4 overall and 5-3 in Louisville’s inaugural season in the Atlantic Coast Conference. Lost 37-14 to Georgia in the Belk Bowl.
Outlook: Petrino is synonymous with offensive football, but it would seem Louisville will depend on a defense that boasts an imposing front seven. Transfer Devonte Fields, a former Big 12 Defensive Rookie of the Year when he played for TCU, strengthens a front line that includes All-ACC players in end Sheldon Rankins and linebacker Keith Kelsey. Just don’t tell Petrino that Louisville’s defense can serve as a security blanket that takes the onus off the offense. “No!” he said, smiling, of this suggestion. “We need to come out and go! Let’s go! Let’s get this offense cranked up and go score points.” But Petrino has acknowledged that his offense has some growing up to do with question marks at quarterback, wide receiver and on the line. “The first thing I worry about with a young offense is trying to do too much,” Petrino said. “ The No. 1 thing is not to hurt yourself with stupid penalties, turning the ball over and mistakes. It’s hard enough to attack and beat a defense when you do things right.” Louisville is widely projected to be a competitive middle-of-the-pack team in the ACC Atlantic Division. A difficult schedule, which includes games against Auburn and Clemson in the first three weeks and a trip to Florida State in Week 6, might make overall improvement difficult to see.
Question marks: Outside of center Tobijah Hughley, a Lafayette High School graduate who started 12 games last season, the offensive line must be rebuilt. Tackle Aaron Epps made six starts, and that’s about it for O-line experience. The wide receiver position is similarly in flux. Freshmen Traveon Samuel and Emonee Spence might make a splash. U of L is expecting transfers Jamari Staples (UAB) and Ja’Quay Savage (Texas A&M) to help fill the void created by the loss of DeVante Parker, who tied a school record with 33 career touchdown catches. Defensively, Louisville will look for two transfers from Georgia, Shaq Wiggins and Josh-Harvey Clemons, to replenish the secondary.
Game of the Year: Louisville jumps into the deep end of the pool to start the season with a game against Auburn, a team ranked in the top five nationally and a national championship contender. A game pitting Petrino against Auburn Coach Gus Malzahn promises plenty of offensive action. Will Muschamp’s arrival as Auburn’s defensive coordinator gives the game additional marketability.
PLAYERS TO WATCH
DE Sheldon Rankins: After leading Louisville in sacks and tackles for loss last season, Rankins is expected to be one of college football’s best defensive linemen. At Louisville’s football media day, Bobby Petrino gushed about Rankins. “I think he should have a great year,” the coach said. “We always talk to players about becoming an expert at their technique, knowing fundamentals He’s as good as anybody. He really knows what he’s doing.” Rankins, who was a three-star recruit out of Covington, Ga., considered entering this year’s NFL Draft. “I came real close to pulling the trigger on going to the NFL,” he said. “ I had a very good season, but I wasn’t as dominant as I wanted to be. And I wanted to leave my mark on this university and this game.” Games against Auburn and Clemson within the season’s first three weeks give Rankins a big-time stage to show his talent.
RB Brandon Radcliff: With the quarterback position unsettled, Radcliff can be a steadying component to Louisville’s offense. He led the Cardinals last season with 737 yards rushing and an average of 5.1 yards per carry. Thus proving that from small things (5-9, 214) big things can one day come. The 2014 season was a marked improvement over a nondescript freshman season in 2013 (90 yards rushing). “The reason he got out there last season is because he outworked everybody,” offensive coordinator Garrick McGee said. Petrino noted how Radcliff improved as a pass protector. As a reward, Louisville players and coaches voted Radcliff one of the team captains for this season. Radcliff attributed this increased profile to “grinding 247 and never giving up on a play.”
WR James Quick: Quick is said to be the highest-rated recruit ever to sign with Louisville. He was a five-star player (Scout.com) for Trinity. Besides being named Kentucky’s Mr. Football, he also set a still-standing state record time in the 200 meters of 20.94 seconds. Yet high school accomplishment has not yet translated into college stardom. In his first two seasons for Louisville, Quick has caught 42 passes for 639 yards and three touchdowns. He’s also dropped enough passes for Cardinals fans and non-fans to take notice. When asked what Louisville wanted from Quick in 2015, Petrino was succinct. “We need consistency,” he said. Consistently catching the ball. Toward that end, Petrino dusted off a drill he calls “words or blanks.” That means catching the ball and being able to see if the writing on the ball appears after it’s tucked safely into an arm. “He actually has good hands,” Petrino said. “His issue is when he tries to run before he catches the ball. Are the words showing or is it blank? That’s when you know did he look at it all the way to the tuck.” When asked if running before the catch was a hard habit to break. “Well, he’s going to break it,” Petrino said good-heartedly. “We have to do a better job of coaching it.”
QB Reggie Bonnafon (or Will Gardner or Kyle Bolin or Lamar Jackson): Someone must play quarterback. Gardner, Bonnafon and Bolin all played the position for Louisville at various times last season. Highly regarded freshman Jackson gives Louisville even more options to consider. Much talk this preseason involved the experience gained from last season and more knowledgeable quarterbacks who better understand offenses and defenses. This seemed to especially apply to Bonnafon, who relied on improvisation last season as a freshman. “A lot of times last year it kind of looked like I knew what I was doing, but I really didn’t,” he said. “So I guess that goes to my acting skills.” He aims to make smarter decisions in what he called “situational football” this season. But Petrino does not want Bonnafon to forsake playmaking altogether. “Reggie’s probably always going to play better when it’s live because of his ability to make plays and move around,” the U of L coach said. The improvisational torch may be passed to Jackson, whom McGee called “as explosive as anybody. Not just on our team. Lamar is one of the most explosive athletes out there.”
DB Josh Harvey-Clemons (or Shaq Wiggins): The front seven on Louisville’s defense can help ease the way for a rebuilt secondary. “We definitely take the onus on ourselves to set the tempo,” Rankins said. Harvey-Clemons and Wiggins can do the same. The transfers from Georgia (they followed defensive coordinator Todd Grantham from Athens, Ga., to Louisville) give the Cards experience and proven production on the college level. Harvey-Clemons, a 6-5 safety, made 66 tackles, intercepted a pass and recovered three fumbles for Georgia in 2013. Wiggins, a 5-10 cornerback, started eight games and had two interceptions that same season.