LeFors, Brohm learn how to share
LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- By all rights, a quarterback controversy should be fracturing the locker room at the University of Louisville.
Stefan LeFors and Brian Brohm are not best buddies. The relationship is built more on competition than affection -- the underappreciated veteran grudgingly surrendering 40 percent of the snaps this season to the hometown golden child. They have little in common beyond hellacious passer ratings.
But the Good Ship Cardinal sails smoothly into Biscayne Bay Thursday night for the biggest game in school history -- unbeaten, 17th-ranked Louisville against unbeaten, third-ranked Miami, in the Orange Bowl and on ESPN. Louisville got here in great shape in large part because two fierce competitors have somehow made work what so often fails: they've shared a one-man position to near-perfection.
How well? Fifth-year senior LeFors is completing 75 percent of his passes and is the No. 5 quarterback in the nation in passing efficiency, completing 51-of-68 throws for 680 yards and three touchdowns. True freshman Brohm is completing 75.6 percent of his passes (31-of-41 for 351 yards). If he had enough attempts, he'd be No. 11 in efficiency -- just ahead of 2003 Heisman Trophy winner Jason White.
(Brohm also is on pace to break the NCAA Division I-A season completion percentage record for a freshman, 66.2 percent, set in 1992 by Grady Benton of Arizona State -- but he probably won't get the 200 minimum attempts needed to be eligible.)
"Brian's going to play every game," Jeff Brohm said. "Other than that, it's Stefan's job to win the football game."
LeFors and Brohm have worked together gracefully, if not gratefully -- one guy making room for a rookie, the other learning to be a backup for the first time in his success-drenched life. This arrangement has been all about gritting your teeth and taking one for the team.
"It's been tough," LeFors acknowledged. "I want to play, and I'm sure Brian wants to play more, too. ... Every competitor wants to be on the field as much as they can. That's natural. I just try to stay positive."
Unless you're Shaq and Kobe, winning makes every share-the-spotlight situation tolerable. And the Cards aren't just winning so far, but winning big. (Big enough, in fact, that the coaches have been able to turn over most fourth quarters to Brohm, which has accelerated his development .)
Meanwhile, the coaching staff is convinced it will take two quarterbacks to get where this team aspires to go.
"In order to win them all, you're going to have a time when you need both guys," Jeff Brohm said. "Now's the time."
LeFors came to Louisville as a football nobody. He had some nice stats -- threw for 6,000 yards as a four-year starter at Christian Life Academy in Baton Rouge -- but hardly anyone noticed. Hometown LSU yawned, as did every other big-time program. (The glamour schools were, in fact, far more smitten by a Louisiana kid from Shreveport who came out the same time as LeFors -- a fellow named Brock Berlin, who will start for the Hurricanes Thursday night.)
The few Division I-A offers LeFors got were as a defensive back. The only reason Louisville knew he was alive was because they received one of his mass-mailed videotapes, and they had a scholarship available.
Brohm came to Louisville as the biggest football somebody in school history. A Sports Illustrated cover boy as a senior at Trinity High School, he turned down Notre Dame, Tennessee and the rest of Gridworld to become the most celebrated recruit the Cards have ever signed. He was on Louisville's recruiting radar from puberty onward.
LeFors is a left-hander with an average arm and not much size (6-foot, 200 pounds) -- but he also has a good mind and great wheels. He's married. He communicates with his deaf parents through sign language.
Brohm is a right-hander with a strong arm and prototypical quarterback size (6-4, 210) -- he's more of a pure passer, and possesses a precocious grasp on the game's intricacies. That's partly because he's the last product of the first family of Louisville football -- father Oscar was a quarterback for the Cardinals, as was Jeff. His other older brother, Greg, was a receiver at U of L.
Shortly after Brohm signed with Louisville, the knucklehead calls started coming on LeFors' cell phone. Get ready to lose your job, LeFors was told. Make way for Brian.
Disrespect was nothing new for LeFors. As he sat behind future NFL QB Dave Ragone for three years, he saw first John L. Smith and then Bobby Petrino bring in no fewer than four Quarterback Of The Future types.
Three of them have transferred. The fourth, hot-shot recruit Michael Bush, who turned down Ohio State and Auburn, is now a running back. LeFors remains.
But even after throwing for 3,000 yards, running for 400 more, accounting for 20 touchdowns, leading the Cards to a 9-4 record and being named first-team All-Conference USA, Bobby Petrino and offensive coordinator Paul Petrino refused to say that LeFors was the iron-clad starter in 2004. Not even a commanding spring performance changed that.
They said he would compete with a kid who hadn't even graduated from high school yet. And whose brother happened to be the position coach. LeFors spent a lot of the offseason smiling, shaking his head and biting his tongue.
First it was Brock Berlin stealing his thunder. Now Brian Brohm. LeFors has spent an entire career dodging BBs.
"Obviously, it's not something he really loves," Jeff Brohm said of the current time-share plan. "But things like this have happened before in college football. He understands."
LeFors established his hold on the job quickly in August, but Brohm came on fast. Petrino announced that LeFors would be the starter, but also said that Brohm would get meaningful playing time in every game. His plan called for Brohm to see action early in the second quarter, then more time in the second half where possible.
"It's worked out great," Brian Brohm said. "Coach scripts the first eight plays I'm going to run, so I know what I'm going to run and I know when I'm going in."
In fact, Brohm managed to deliver on his sky-high hype the very first time he took the field as a Cardinal. In a scoreless opener against arch-rival Kentucky, he took Louisville down for a touchdown and a 7-0 lead. The only time the kid showed his age was on the touchdown play, when he turned the wrong way to pitch the ball to Lionel Gates, then recovered at the last second.
Brohm also got the Cards in the end zone to break a 7-7 tie against East Carolina, then got to actually throw the ball instead of handing off all fourth quarter of that 59-7 romp. The result: 12 out of 18 for 186 yards and his first collegiate touchdown pass, to go with two TD runs.
For his part, Brohm has learned something about avoiding negative plays by watching LeFors' mobility in the pocket. And LeFors has complimented Brohm's early maturity.
The forced alliance holds. And in large part because of that, Louisville is winning.
Pat Forde is a senior writer at ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPN4D@aol.com.
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