(Photo – USA Today)
As Louisville fans bickered amongst themselves whether the offense needed fixing or not after the Houston win, what may have slid under the radar Saturday night was that for the third straight game, Louisville running back Michael Dyer did not carry the football. While he did see time at kick returner, he was not once present in the Cards backfield. His journey from SEC superstar to off-the-field problem child to Louisville’s 3rd string running back has gone from one of the hottest preseason story lines to dust in the wind.
Dyer’s addition to the 2013 Louisville football team was heavy with controversy, and head coach Charlie Strong put him on the roster despite heavy criticism from both fans (mainly rival fans) and the media. Critics of the move called Strong a hypocrite and questioned his moral authority due to his sign in the locker room that reads, “Core Values: Honesty, Treat Women With Respect, No Drugs, No Stealing, No Guns.” Number 3 and 5 on that list are what led to Dyer’s exit from his two previous teams, but Strong took him in, anyway, under a zero tolerance policy. Now, after the coach risked his character and saw it torn apart publicly, he has chosen to play Dyer less and less as the season has progressed until the last three games, where he has not been in the backfield at all.
Aside from Teddy Bridgewater, no player on Louisville’s roster drew more media attention and hype prior to the season, and certainly no player at all had more collegiate accolades. Needless to say, his debut in a Cardinal uniform was highly anticipated. Yet, aside from one explosive 46-yard touchdown run in the opener vs. Ohio, he has more or less disappeared in every game since. On the subject of Dyer, Strong has been as quiet as he can be to the media. Of the three games he has not played, he dressed for two but did not travel to play in the UCONN game. Strong said he needed to take care of some personal things but did not elaborate any further than that. Dyer himself has not been made available to the media at all since arriving, so aside from speculation, there is no sure way of knowing why the former MVP of the 2011 BCS National Championship game has spent more time on the bench than on the field.
There are theories, of course. The first, and most logical, theory is that Dominique Brown and Senorise Perry have simply outplayed him in practice. For anyone who saw Brown’s dominant performance against Houston or knows what Perry has done when healthy, it should not come as a shock. After all, as talented as he may be, Dyer arrived in Louisville when there was less than a month before the season opener. Unless he is a Peyton Manning-like sponge in regards to studying a playbook, there was a lot he would have to grasp right away, and this was after he had not played football for a year. Not only did he not play in a game, he did not put on a set of pads for a year. In other words, it would take some time. Basically, he arrived and was told, “Hey Mike, great to have you. Here’s your uniform, your locker, your playbook, and your Ohio scouting report, be sure to have it down ASAP, okay?” While he was getting up to speed both physically and mentally, Brown and Perry, who already knew the playbook, were getting better and leaving him further behind on the depth chart. Dyer’s poor pass protection does not help his case much, either.
Outside of the play of the other two running backs, one thing that seems to be far down the list of possibilities is off-the-field troubles. Strong is holding him to a zero tolerance policy, and with the way Brown has been playing, and to a lesser extent Perry, it is not as if Dyer’s on-field production would get him off the hook for any wrong-doing. From all accounts from his fellow running backs, he as been a model teammate, too. No arrogance, no acting entitled, no pouting. Brown, Perry and freshman Brandon Radcliffe have all said he has been a willing learner and will help his teammates out however possible. Yet, is it possible that a moment during the season where he was perhaps “too” good of a teammate is the story behind his lack of playing time? In the Central Florida game, when Dyer’s number was called, he declined the opportunity to get on the field in favor of his teammate, Dominique Brown, who had been having a solid ground game. “Show me something,” he yelled at Brown as he headed off to the field. An admirable gesture of team-first attitude and camaraderie, yes, but it was a move in which he overruled his coach. Coaches do not typically like that. Maybe after that moment, Strong just said to him, “You don’t want to play? Fine. There’s the bench. Get comfortable.”
Finally, as Louisville fans are well aware (especially after the post-Houston press conference), Charlie Strong is not one to give into public pressure. He does things his way. Just because someone was an All-American in another life and is a player fans were anxious to see play, that is just not the way the guy operates. In fact, maybe it is part of his plan to help the young man. Despite what critics like USA Today’s Dan Wolken might think, Strong cares about his players and their future. While Michael Dyer did what he had to do off the field to prove worthy of Charlie Strong’s team, maybe Strong wanted to humble him a bit more. After all, it is one thing to not play while not a member of a team, but to be a member of a team, know how talented you are, and still watch from the sidelines? That is facing real humility. Dyer had a chance to enter the supplemental draft, but he chose to attend Louisville instead to restore his good name. Perhaps Charlie Strong was not going to make it that easy. Maybe he wanted Dyer to truly appreciate the game of football and to understand that it was a privilege to play the game, not a right. That while he earned his way back into the sport, he still needed to show more to earn his way onto the field. Maybe that is the reason why Dyer has been seen only rarely.
Maybe none of these reasons are why fans have not seen #26 in the backfield. Maybe it’s a bit of all three. Dyer may very well elect to enter the NFL Draft next season, and he could just as easily return to Louisville. Without media access to Dyer and very few comments from Strong, there is really no way to tell what is going through the head of Michael Dyer or what his next step may be. What is known, however, is that Charlie Strong will do what he think his best, regardless of public opinion. Whether that means running a power running offense or helping a fallen young star, he is going to do things the way he sees fit. If his success with doing things his way on the field is any way indicative of the impact he will have on a young player’s life, then Michael Dyer will be just fine. Whether he sees another snap in the backfield for Louisville or not.