BACK IN 2017 during joyful times at Louisville, the Cardinals' quarterbacks gave each other nicknames. Lamar Jackson, the lightning-quick Heisman winner, was "Vick," a nod to former Virginia Tech great Michael Vick, perhaps the only real comparison for Jackson's scrambling wizardry. Jawon Pass, the Cardinals' 6-foot-4 heir apparent with a tantalizing blend of arm strength and athleticism, was "Cam," in honor of Cam Newton, who used a similar skill set to win a national championship at Auburn. It was a mutual love fest, a reminder that, yes, they're different players, but they're both capable of something spectacular.
For Jackson, the hype was warranted. He was arguably the most thrilling college football player in a generation, and his acrobatics with the ball in his hands made him a first-round pick of the Baltimore Ravens. But he was back on the sideline in Atlanta when his understudy, Pass, got his first career start in the 2018 opener, a showdown against No. 1 Alabama.
"It's a lot of pressure going up against a big team," Jackson said, "and you're trying to show out."
There was a lot riding on Pass. In retrospect, Louisville's culture, chemistry and talent had already eroded from the inside, and Jackson's remarkable athleticism hid the fissures that had grown for years under head coach Bobby Petrino. But as the 2018 season began, it felt as if Jackson were handing Pass the keys to a Ferrari, and the Alabama game was the new kid's chance to see how the car handled. It did not go well.
Louisville lost the opener in a blowout. The next week, Pass was benched after throwing for only 89 yards in the first half against FCS opponent Indiana State. A week later, against Western Kentucky, he attempted three passes, and the only one that was caught went to the other team.
When time allowed, Jackson tried to text, to call. He understood the burden he'd left behind, the weight he'd put on Pass' shoulders.
"You have a lot of pressure on you because of me," Jackson told him. "But Cam, you've got to be you, bro. Go play ball."
It's perhaps a fitting irony that even with the best of intentions, Pass was saddled with comparisons -- Lamar Jackson, Cam Newton, it didn't matter. He was barely hanging on as Jawon Pass, and his team was crumbling around him.
"In the beginning of the season, even with the few wins we had, it didn't feel like we won," Pass said. "It was like that the whole season. Nobody was on the same page."
A year later, Pass is again Louisville's starting quarterback -- and it's best hope for a rebound. Again, he opens with a marquis opponent, as the Cardinals host Notre Dame (8 p.m. ET, Monday, ESPN). This time, however, there's a new coaching staff, a new culture, and Pass hopes, a new opportunity to rebuild a shattered career.
IF THERE was a defining moment of the 2018 season for Pass, it came in the waning minutes of what should've been an easy win over Florida State. It was Week 5, and the Cardinals had the ball, driving deep into FSU territory with a three-point lead and less than two minutes to play. All that was left was to run the ball a few times, chew up the remaining clock, then celebrate. But that's not how it ended.
Inexplicably, the Cardinals' first-down play was a pass, and as confounding as the decision was, the outcome, in hindsight, felt predestined. Florida State's Stanford Samuels III stepped in front of the throw for an interception, the Seminoles marched the field and scored, and Louisville lost 28-24.
Samuels III makes game-winning INT for FSU
Florida State's Stanford Samuels III intercepts a throw by Jawon Pass to seal the 28-24 victory for the Seminoles.
Until that point, Pass was enjoying the best game of his young career, his first 300-yard day. Afterward -- well, nothing at Louisville was the same.
In the hallway outside the team's locker room, signs were posted, one for each of the season's opponents. Beneath each logo, the players of the game were listed. When the team reconvened that Sunday, no names were listed.
"We thought, OK, maybe they'll update it tomorrow," receiver Dez Fitzpatrick said.
Monday, nothing. Tuesday, nothing.
"Friday when we leave to travel [to the team hotel], it's still not there," Fitzpatrick said. "It's hard when you know the coaches and GAs handle the board, and we're looking at the coaches like, did they give up on us? That's what I feel like happened, and if you don't have the coaches behind you, it's hard to play."
That Saturday, Georgia Tech hung 66 on the Cardinals. The next two months were a whirlwind. Pass lost his job, gained it back, lost it again. Louisville never sniffed a win. More than a dozen players toyed with a transfer. Petrino and his entire staff were eventually fired.
When the new staff arrived, all that was left was the shell of a football team, and at the center of it all was the quarterback. Pass, new head coach Scott Satterfield said, was as low as he'd ever seen a player.
So this is where the rebuilding began. How do you fix the confidence of a player, of a team, that had hit rock bottom?
IT WAS MID-SEPTEMBER in 2016, and Max Browne had just been benched. His dream job, the one he'd waited nearly four years for, was ripped from his grasp after a brutal start to USC's season that began with a blowout loss to Alabama. Now, he was being ushered into a room filled with reporters to talk about his failure.
"My mindset was just, don't cry," Browne said. "You're just trying to keep things in perspective."
He didn't cry, but he also never regained the starting job at USC. Like Pass, Browne's entire future depended on rewriting the story he had scripted for himself since he was a kid, and when he sat before the cameras, choking back tears, he couldn't envision a scenario in which he wasn't a quarterback.
"I was always worried, what if it doesn't work out?" Browne said. "I couldn't imagine my life without football."
The history of college football is littered with players like Browne and Pass, huge talents with sterling recruiting rankings, whose dreams are crushed under the weight of immense expectations and early struggles. What's less common are the redemption stories. Once the confidence collapses for a QB, it can be nearly impossible to rebuild without a massive shift in setting, culture and approach.
Garrett Gilbert was supposed to be the next big thing at Texas, an Austin native who showed just enough in relief of an injured Colt McCoy in the 2010 national championship game to have Longhorns fans buzzing with excitement for his future. The next season was a disaster, and Texas finished with a losing record for the first time in 13 years. Gilbert took the blame.
"Going to Texas was my dream, everything I ever wanted," Gilbert says now. He's currently a backup QB for the Cleveland Browns. "I grew up watching Major Applewhite and Chris Simms and Vince Young and Colt, and I wanted to follow in those footsteps. It was tough because no one wanted to win for Texas more than I did."
That's how Feleipe Franks felt after his first dismal season at Florida, too. Tim Tebow's success with the Gators from 2006 through 2009 set the stage for massive expectations for future QBs, only to see John Brantley and Jeff Driskel, Treon Harris and Luke Del Rio all flame out without resurrecting the program. Franks was the latest cautionary tale.
Then came 2018, and Franks was given a fresh start under new head coach Dan Mullen. The offense changed, his perspective changed and, blissfully, the results changed. Franks finished with 24 TD passes, twice as many as any Florida QB since Tebow.
Franks shares how facing adversity helped him find his game
Florida QB Feleipe Franks chats with Marty Smith about being booed by Gators fans at home and then silencing them the following week.
"My mindset flipped," Franks told ESPN this spring. "When I first got here, I wanted to have fun and be a big-time guy. Now it's a focus on making others better, becoming a great football player, winning championships."
Gilbert, too, found new hope. He transferred to SMU in 2012 and took over the starting job in June Jones' run-and-shoot offense. The struggles continued early, including a woeful performance against TCU that September in which Gilbert threw five interceptions in a 24-16 loss in a driving rainstorm. After the game, Jones found Gilbert, put his arm around his QB.
"You're our guy," Jones told him.
Jones pointed out the good throws Gilbert made, assured his QB he still had the coach's full support. In the remaining 19 games of Gilbert's career, he completed 62% of his throws and tossed 32 touchdowns to only 13 interceptions.
THE ENTIRETY of Pass' personal relationship with the previous Louisville coaching staff amounted to a single invitation to the home of a strength coach. Players never went into coaches' offices and many didn't even have their coach's cellphone number. Fitzpatrick remembers joking that he had no idea what Petrino's house looked like.
In retrospect, Pass says he thinks he handled last season's unraveling fairly well, found a support system to get him through the rough patches. But it rarely came from the staff.
"A lot of people hit me up, motivated me, told me to keep my head up," Pass said. "It could be anybody, from people in the building, academic advisers, coaches" -- and here, he catches himself -- "nah, not coaches."
Satterfield had heard some of the stories, too, about the hard feelings and high pressure and internal discord, but truth is, plenty of blame was foisted on Pass, too. The word, upon Satterfield's arrival, was that Pass came late to meetings, wasn't interested in getting better off the field, didn't do things "the right way."
When they finally met, however, Satterfield was pleasantly surprised.
Pass was eager to learn. They labored through the film from last season once, enough to get a feel for the starting point, but then turned the page. Pass said he never considered transferring, but change was essential. This was a fresh start, and Pass was thrilled to have it.
"When this staff got here, that was one of the main focuses was to get our mind off [last year]. ... They knew what we went through and how tough it was."Louisville quarterback Jawon Pass
"He's bought in," Satterfield said. "He's excited for something new and different and he's jumped right in."
It helps that Satterfield and his assistants have worked tirelessly to build bridges. In camp, the team went bowling and played paintball. Satterfield invites players to his house to grill, shoot hoops, play cornhole. Families are encouraged to come to practice, to spend time at the football facilities.
"When this staff got here, that was one of the main focuses was to get our mind off [last year]," Pass said. "They focused on trying to put a smile on our face. They knew what we went through and how tough it was."
A year ago, Fitzpatrick said, players stayed away from the football facilities. It was misery to be there. Now, you walk through the front door, and there are smiles -- from coaches to staff to the maintenance workers.
Before a workout, strength coach Mike Sirignano makes a point of reminding his guys that this isn't supposed to be a slog. The biggest priority, he tells them, is to have some fun.
"That's bringing the love of the game back," Fitzpatrick said. "Then you want to do what the coaches ask you to do, and slowly but surely, that love is coming back."
THE SCOREBOARD is likely to mock Louisville again this season, and that's where the biggest obstacle for Pass and the Cardinals awaits.
The good news, Satterfield joked, is no one's picking Louisville to win many games, so the bar is set low. Still, there are no guarantees here. The climb back to respectability is a long one, and Pass hasn't tasted enough success yet for anyone to be certain there's a light at the end of this tunnel.
Jackson said he has heard nothing but raves about the new staff, and is thrilled to see his protégé making strides, saying Pass will "take over" in 2019.
Satterfield has worked to simplify the offensive scheme, to take some of the burden off of Pass and let him play fast and loose, but the big lesson he has tried to impart, the thing he really wants his quarterback to understand, is that struggles are inevitable. Failure, Satterfield tells him, comes from an unwillingness to learn from them.
To hammer home the lesson, Satterfield has purposefully created practice scenarios to test Pass' resolve. It's adversity by design, and in Louisville's first scrimmage of the fall, the results were middling, at best. They met, watched film, talked about the mistakes, Satterfield said, then Pass was thrown into the same fire again in a scrimmage a few days later. He looked like a new QB.
"It's cool to me to see how he's reacted to it," Satterfield said. "He's not hung his head. He's said, 'Oh, OK, I got it now. That's what I should've done there.' And he comes back the next day ready to work."
That's the lesson football imparts on everyone eventually, Gilbert said. It's not about celebrating success but surviving adversity.
Pass is saying the right things so far. Satterfield has seen signs of promise. The mood in the locker room is no longer funereal, but the stakes are about to get much bigger.
"When we flash forward, and he throws a crucial pick, does that ruin his whole season?" Browne said. "Or does he say, 'Hey, I've been through this, been through the ringer.' The disappointments put life on a different scale."