The first play of my college career was basically a disaster.
We were playing No.6 Auburn in our season-opener at the Georgia Dome last year. I was a freshman and had only gotten to campus a few weeks before. Stadium was packed, and I knew that everybody important in my life was watching. Only one thing was running through my mind as I took my first snap:
Don’t throw an interception. Do not throw an interception.
I still didn’t really understand the offense yet. Not even close, actually. But I knew Auburn didn’t care about that.
On the very first play of the game, we lined up in a trick formation with two quarterbacks in the backfield, me and Reggie Bonnafon. We’d practiced it all week. This time, Reggie was the decoy. He went in motion and I got the snap.
Guess what happened?
I scrambled to the right, running for my life, and then right before I got to the sideline I heaved the ball to a spot where there were a lot more blue jerseys than white. Sure enough, an Auburn player came down with the ball.
Want to know the funny thing, though? Looking back, I’m kind of glad that was how I started out my college career. It was kind of a relief to screw up right away. It sort of cleared my head. After that, I didn’t have to worry about what would happen if I threw an interception. I didn’t have to worry about being perfect. All I had to do was go out there and play the game the way I was raised to.
After that, it was game on.
It was never my goal to make it to the NFL or even to play college football. That wasn’t why I played. I started playing football because I’m from South Florida and football is what kids from South Florida do. It turned out I was pretty good at it right away.
A lot of people helped me get better when I was young, but the best coach I’ve ever had was also my first one: Mom. And I’m not saying that just because she looked out for me and encouraged me to pursue football and all that stuff. I mean she actually made me grind to get better.
I grew up in a town called Pompano Beach, and there was a big bridge by our house. My Mom and I would run on it just about every day. Didn’t matter how hot it was. We’d go back and forth, and then back and forth again. And let me tell you, Mom was in shape! I’ve never played in a football game that was more tiring than those long runs on that bridge.
After we ran, we’d go into our backyard, put on equipment and start hitting — me, my younger brother and my mom. Now she was never like trying to put a lick on us or anything, but we’d all run through drills together. We bonded that way. Thinking back on it, imagining my mini self in a three-point stance blocking Mom, it’s kind of hilarious. But she knew what she was doing. She had a vision for my football career even before I did.
She probably had recognized my natural talent for the sport. From a young age, when I had the ball in my hands I just kind of knew how to find angles and space — like I could feel where I had to go. My first year playing football, in 2004, I was only seven years old and I started at quarterback because I could run. It just so happened that 2004 was the year for running quarterbacks.
Specifically it was the year of Mike Vick.
He was on the cover of Madden, which basically meant that playing as the Falcons like a cheat code. On the field he was running in circles around NFL defenses. He made it look easy. I’d always watch his highlights and then go outside and try to copy them. My first impression of what it meant to be a great player was developed by watching him. Here was somebody who was the fastest guy on the field and could also throw the ball 80 yards in one heave like it was nothing. I loved his style.
The next year, another guy caught my attention: Reggie Bush. That was his Heisman year at USC, and every game he would do something I’d never seen on a football field before. He could run fast, but what made him special were those quick, quick cuts that he would always do on a dime to make defenders look silly.
At that age, I pretty much just ran with the ball every single play, so I started trying out these Reggie Bush moves on kids. Just sprint five yards, then juke left or right and watch kids fall down around me on my way to the end zone.
I wasn’t really recruited that heavily for most of high school. Then after my junior season things kind of blew up.
Offers rolled in from a lot of schools, but after I did some research I knew that Louisville was the right spot for me. The Cardinals were on me early, and I always knew that I wanted to go to a school out of state to experience something new. When I first heard from them, I started looking into how Coach Petrino developed players. He was somebody who had always adapted his offense to the talent he had, so I got excited about how I could fit into his scheme. When I finally met him, I was impressed. He didn’t try to pretend to be somebody he wasn’t or tell me I was the greatest person to ever play. He told me exactly what he wanted out of me — my very best. I could tell right away that he could help me get better. Simple as that.
I knew he ran a pro-style offense that was pretty complicated. And that’s what really drew me in. I’ve always known that I can run with the football. Plenty of schools offered me the chance to play in pretty simple offenses with no real playbook where the main skills I would use were my speed and instincts. I wanted to be able to do more than that. I didn’t want to come out of college known as just an athlete.
Even though I expected the offense to be difficult to learn, but it was even harder than I had imagined. It almost made me angry as I tried to study it. But of course now I understand that the real problem was with me. I wasn’t a student of the game yet. Up until that point, football had always just made sense to me — put the ball in my hands, let me know where a couple of my receivers were running and I’d make something good happen.
Even though Auburn beat us in my first game, I led us on a couple of touchdown drives in the second half and ended up being named the starter for the next game. As the season went on, there was no time to really closely study our offense because I had to prepare on the fly for whoever we were playing that week.
It wasn’t until our practices for the Music City Bowl that I got a chance to really study the playbook.
I started getting to the facilities at 6 a.m. every day to watch tape. After I was done, Coach Nick, who’s Bobby’s son, would offer me feedback and guidance. The most daunting part about learning a complex offense is the feeling that you’ve got to understand everything all at once. What Coach Nick and the rest of the staff did was to break things down into tiny pieces, and help me learn little by little.
You know, before that, I’d never taken the time to really closely watch myself play. I didn’t know what to look for. But slowly, as I started reviewing each of my plays from that season one by one, I started noticing little corrections I could make in order to turn a first down into a touchdown. That was exciting because I began to see, right there on film, just how much I could improve in this system. I could tell that once everything clicked we were going to be trouble for any defense we faced.
Getting a better feel for the offense not only helped me develop as a passer, but it also made running the ball a lot easier. The best thing for a running game is the threat of the pass. Now instead of just getting a play and running it, I started reading defenses and learning checkdowns. The great players — the ones who make a career out of this — spend a lot of their time focusing on the tiny parts of the game that can help them exploit the other team’s weaknesses. Athleticism alone isn’t enough. There’s always something that a defense is giving you. A great quarterback solves that puzzle on every play.
In the Music City Bowl against Texas A&M — the first game after I really started hitting the film — I threw for more than 200 yards and ran for over 200 yards. The Aggies were a team with some serious talent. Once I saw the results of putting in the work in the film room, I never looked back.
Last summer we were walking back to the freshman dorms after practice, when in the distance we saw two guys in the street racing. Like on foot, side by side, sprinting down the block.
Of course this caught our attention, and as we got a little closer, one my teammates was like, “Yooo, I think that’s Rondo?”
We were all like, “What? Nah.”
And then we got a little closer and … oh my God, it was Rajon Rondo.
Of course, we had a lot of questions. Why was Rondo in town? Why was he doing sprints in the street? But all of a sudden, he was walking over to us. The closest I’d ever been to this guy was playing 2K.
It’s not every day you happen to stumble across a celebrity who happens to be racing people in the street. We all gathered around him and said, What’s up? We found out he was in town hosting a basketball camp and was doing sprints with his cousin. After talking for a bit, he looked at us with a smile and said, “Which one of y’all wants next?”
Immediately my teammates turn to me, and I started laughing. I’d just finished running in practice and I wasn’t exactly ready for this. It was kind of crazy — wasn’t exactly on my list of things to do that day — but we lined up on the street and just went.
I beat him by a few strides, and then we shook hands. He was really cool, said he would come watch us play. I know he’s a Kentucky guy, but I like to think he’s pulling for us this year.
That was such a cool experience and it feels like these past few weeks have been filled with moments like that. After we beat Florida State, Mike Vick even tweeted about me.
Come on, now. That’s crazy.
What I love about playing on this team is that we definitely have upperclassmen who are strong leaders, but the bigger thing is that every player on the roster holds his teammates to a certain standard. We don’t need pump speeches or anything like that. We just know. We go out there and ball for each other.
People were probably surprised when we came out hot this season, but we weren’t. Honestly, we were relieved just to not have to play against each other in practice anymore. The thing about practices with Coach Petrino is that they challenge you in every way. Every time we’re practice field, I’m forced to think constantly. You have to be a smart player in order to play in this offense, and I’m very much still learning. But I’m a better player now than I was in Week 1, and I want to keep getting a little better each week. That’s my only individual goal.
As good as it felt to beat Florida State, it hurt just as bad when we lost to Clemson. It was kind of crushing because of how the whole team put it all out there. It was tough to swallow. But at the same time, it was one game. The only way to really move past it was to come together, and keep balling. I think the loss to Clemson was kind of like my first pick. We absorbed it — and then set out to make sure we don’t experience anything like it again.
Now I think we’re ready to take on whatever’s in front of us.
Now, it’s game on.