How Lamar Jackson captivated the college football world and won the Heisman trophy
- On Saturday night in New York, Louisville quarterback Lamar Jackson hoisted the Heisman Trophy. A look back at the journey and the incredible season that led him to college football's most coveted award.
NEW YORK — Lamar Jackson kept coming back to the same answer. On Friday afternoon, in a posh lounge on the eighth floor of the Marriot Marquis overlooking Times Square, he sat before a bank of reporters to field questions on topics ranging from Louisville’s season to his impressions of New York City as a first-time visitor to the outcome of a hypothetical matchup with the National Football League’s Cleveland Browns. Jackson carefully considered each one, but he couldn’t help betray a sense of wonderment at everything happening around him. “Crazy,” Jackson said, over and over, as if uncertain of how to process “all the people, the traffic jams, like, as you see on TV” or explain how he blossomed into the most outstanding player in college football.
The latter became official during a ceremony at the same hotel on Saturday night, when Jackson became the 82nd winner of the Heisman Trophy. The 19-year-old Louisville sophomore, the youngest winner ever, was the favorite to claim the award, even after the Cardinals dropped their final two games against Houston and Kentucky. Jackson is the first winner to lose the final two games of the regular season since Notre Dame wide receiver Tim Brown in 1987. He received 526 first-place votes and 2,144 total points to beat out the four other finalists: Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson (269 first-place votes, 1,524 points), Oklahoma quarterback Baker Mayfield (26 first-place votes, 361 points), Oklahoma wide receiver Dede Westbrook (7 first-place votes, 209 points) and Michigan linebacker Jabrill Peppers (11 first-place votes, 208 points).
“I don’t even know what to say,” said Jackson, decked in a suave red blazer with black lapels, a black-and-white polka dot bow tie and pocket square, a gold crucifix necklace, a pair of Fendi monster eyes shoes and a matching belt buckle.
Jackson’s victory accords with trends that have taken hold over the last decade. It reinforces the notion that dual-threat quarterbacks have an edge in the Heisman race over their pro-style peers and signifies that younger players are more likely to win the award now than throughout most of its eight-decade-plus history. Jackson is the sixth dual-threat quarterback and sixth underclassman winner since 2007, when Florida’s Tim Tebow, a dual-threat QB, became the first sophomore to hoist the bronze trophy (A junior or senior won it every year prior to 2007). Jackson is also the 14th quarterback to win the Heisman since 2000; the only two players at other positions who have taken home the award since the turn of the century are a pair of Alabama running backs (Mark Ingram in 2009 and Derrick Henry in 2015).
Saturday night marks the end of a Heisman race defined more by criticism of the award and the manner in which this year’s race unfolded than positive assessments of the players who performed well enough to earn trips to New York. With no candidate stepping up to seriously challenge Jackson until late November (Watson), he was perceived to have backed into a Heisman victory after starting the season on a hot streak and fading down the stretch. In addition, along with the typical condemnations of the Heisman’s prohibition against ballot disclosure prior to the ceremony, media members lamented the lack of appreciation for defensive players, such as Alabama defensive lineman Jonathan Allen, and bemoaned the selection of Peppers as a finalist. Unfortunately for Jackson, this commentary glossed over how excellent he was for most of the season.
It is difficult to remember a quarterback who could both match Jackson stride-for-stride and throw passes with the same force and precision. He evaded defenders with ease while scampering from the pocket, sprinted past some defensive backs and juked others to the ground, feathered long passes to wide receivers for big gains downfield and rifled short ones to keep the chains moving. Those abilities helped Jackson notch statistical milestones seemingly every week as he operated Louisville coach Bobby Petrino’s offense to devastating effect and drove Louisville’s early push to an Atlantic Coast Conference championship and the College Football Playoff. While the Cardinals had dropped out of the playoff and conference title conversations by the end of the season, Jackson had compiled an unimpeachable statistical résumé.
He’s the first Football Bowl Subdivision player to record at least 3,300 passing yards and 1,500 rushing yards; his 4,928 total yards are second only to BYU’s Ty Detmer among Heisman winners; and his 51 touchdowns are tied for third among winners and more than 65 percent of FBS teams this year. Simply put, Jackson delivered one of the best individual seasons in recent memory. Still, he does have a point. It is sort of “crazy” that a former three-star recruit who wasn’t viewed as one of the top Heisman contenders before the season, and who plays for a school known more for basketball than football, will leave New York this weekend having won the most coveted individual honor in college sports. How did it happen, really?
To understand how Jackson captivated the college football universe, one must go back to last season.
After posting an 8–5 record and finishing third in the ACC Atlantic division, Louisville drew Texas A&M in a Music City Bowl matchup that lacked intrigue for most fans residing outside of the Bluegrass State and College Station, Tex. Yet anyone who dismissed the game as an unremarkable member of an assortment of bleh middle-tier bowl games definitely regretted that decision. The Music City Bowl produced the most scintillating individual performance of the postseason, a four-touchdown, 453-yard tour de force from Jackson that catapulted the Cardinals’ star into national college football consciousness.
Teams often receive undue amounts of hype the season following big bowl wins, but the victory over the Aggies created so much buzz about Jackson that he could have filled in as one of the main characters in the Toy Story franchise. Jackson's Q Score boost endured, despite the fact that his master class came against an Aggies team seemingly on the verge of imploding after dropping four of its final regular-season games, and watching two five-star quarterback recruits transfer earlier that month. But the context was less important than the act itself, an utter dismantling of an SEC defense from a true freshman who arrived on campus less than a year earlier with a low recruiting profile.
Spring practice, and the media coverage thereof, cranked the Jackson hype machine to 11. It had long been clear that Jackson could become one of the best running quarterbacks in the country, but the passing prowess he flashed hinted at a much higher ceiling. Jackson drew positive reviews for his throwing in team workouts, and in the spring game, against the second-team defense, he delivered a statistical line so ridiculous (24-of-29, 519 yards, eight touchdowns) that it felt like something a Madden world champion would produce in rookie mode. The apparent improvement he displayed would have been encouraging for any quarterback entering his second college season, but with Jackson, there was a sense his year-to-year progression could amount to something far more significant than the standard sophomore leap. Among Louisville fans, at least, Jackson had already established a reputation as an athletic marvel, a human highlight reel capable of sinking full-court shots and dusting NBA point guards in foot races. As he prepared for his first full season as the Cardinals starter, Jackson seemed to be evolving from a great runner into a great quarterback.
It didn’t happen overnight. Before the bowl game last year, Jackson began focusing on the mistakes he’d made over the first 12 games of his freshman season. Six AM film study sessions helped Jackson understand what led to positive plays and negative ones, and the extra preparation time allowed him to become more familiar with the playbook. “I wanted to go back and see the bad things I did to make that better, so that’s what really helped me out,” Jackson said.
Jackson’s growth entering 2016 would not have garnered nearly as much attention as it did were it not for the perception that his team, despite residing in the same division as projected national championship contenders Florida State and Clemson, had what it took to deliver its best season yet under Petrino. Moreover, the Louisville coach’s reputation as a premier offensive strategist lent credence to the notion that Jackson could be on the verge of a breakout year, complete with the superlative statistical output to earn national recognition even if the Cardinals flopped. Indeed, the combination of Jackson’s potential, Petrino’s offensive track record and his team’s upward trajectory gave Jackson, if you squinted hard enough, the contours of a candidacy that could top those of established returning candidates like Watson, Mayfield, Stanford’s Christian McCaffrey, and LSU’s Leonard Fournette in the Heisman race.
All Jackson needed to do was turn that potential into production. The first test, a home date with Conference USA also-ran Charlotte, was a breeze. Jackson shredded the 49ers with 405 yards of total offense and eight touchdowns. He followed that up by roasting Syracuse the next week, but one sequence within that game legitimized his campaign in a way no statistic could. On an option play late in the second quarter, Jackson scampered from the pocket, approached an Orange defensive back and leapt over him without making contact before jogging into the end zone. It was a stunning distillation, in NBA scouting parlance, of Jackson’s bounce that doubled as the most breathtaking Heisman moment any player had delivered to that point of the season.
His effort against Syracuse set the table for a home date with then-No. 2 Florida State, a matchup billed as a referendum both on Jackson’s campaign and Louisville’s viability as a national title contender. The game provided affirmative answers on both counts, as Jackson unhinged the Seminoles’ defense in a 63–20 romp. The 362 yards and five touchdowns Jackson compiled were proof positive of Jackson’s ability to maintain his tremendous form against quality defenses, and dual-threat legend Michael Vick added fuel to the fire by tweeting that Jackson is “5x better than what I was at V-Tech.” Vick’s assessment was unrealistic, but it nonetheless reinforced the belief that Jackson was more than a typical September Heisman winner, unlike past players such as Michigan’s Denard Robinson in 2010 and West Virginia’s Geno Smith in 2012, who started out hot but crashed and burned later in the season.
Jackson’s first loss, a 42–36 decision at Clemson on Oct.1, actually strengthened his Heisman bid. Though the defeat set the Cardinals back in the playoff chase, Jackson didn’t quake in the spotlight. He gave the Tigers’ imposing defense everything it could handle and met Watson throw for throw. That Louisville eventually fell short didn’t diminish the sense that Jackson was the best player on the field that night. “He’s a freak,” Clemson linebacker Ben Boulware said of Jackson afterward. “I was very confident going in that our scheme would shut him down, but hats off to that dude.” That was the last game on Louisville’s schedule that attracted significant national attention from a team standpoint. Jackson would spend the next month-plus navigating mediocre ACC opponents while trying to burnish his Heisman CV. The question during that stretch was whether anyone could close the gap.
It’s astonishing that the gap ever grew so large in the first place. Consider the competition Jackson faced entering the season. Five of the players who finished in the top seven of last year’s voting for the Heisman (McCaffrey, Watson, Mayfield, Fournette and Cook), as well as one player who finished in the top five of 2014 (Ohio State’s J.T. Barrett), returned to school. Any of them would would have been a reasonable pick for the award in August, but Jackson vaulted ahead of all of them by October. Fournette battled an ankle injury for most of the season and was shut down in LSU’s primetime showdown with Alabama. McCaffrey also was hampered by an injury, and shocking losses to Washington, Washington State and Colorado made it easier for voters to dismiss him. Cook was upstaged by Jackson in a head-to-head matchup, Barrett underwhelmed as a passer and Mayfield, despite posting better statistics than he did in 2015, couldn’t solve the best defense he faced in 2016 (Ohio State) and was knocked for feasting on weak opponents in the Big 12.
Other players failed to create momentum because they were thought to have put up empty numbers in low-profile games (Texas’s D’Onta Foreman, San Diego State’s Donnel Pumphrey); because they didn’t compare favorably to recent defensive Heisman aspirants who fell short like Nebraska’s N’Damukong Suh and Notre Dame’s Manti Te’o (Michigan’s Peppers, Alabama’s Jonathan Allen); or because it wasn’t totally clear whether they were the most qualified candidates on their own team (Alabama’s Jalen Hurts, Oklahoma’s Dede Westbrook). That is not a complete list, but the absence of an obvious challenger afforded Jackson near-total control of the narrative surrounding the award. Any strong performance from another player was viewed through the prism of how it would affect his chances of making up ground on Jackson, so commanding was his lead.
Jackson’s path to the finish line was not as smooth as he would have liked. His grip on the Heisman loosened with near losses to Duke and Virginia and a win over Wake Forest in which the Cardinals trailed entering the fourth quarter. But even as he courted disaster, Jackson offered glimpses of the sensational playmaking that sent him flying up the Heisman ladder in September: a game-winning touchdown pass late against the Cavaliers, a 431-yard, four touchdown day against NC State, a seven-score effort against Boston College. Those showings, coupled with other players’ inability to take advantage of Jackson’s decline in form, kept him in control through conference play. Consecutive defeats to Houston and Kentucky to end the season chipped away at the vast gulf between Jackson and everybody chasing him, but he finished the season as such a clear leader that the biggest question entering Saturday night was not whether he would win the Heisman but how large his margin of victory would be.
Rick Swain is not a “bar guy.” He watched Jackson’s games closely this season, either alone or with a close friend. Sometimes he would even try to record and rewatch them. Most of what Swain observed did not surprise him. Swain saw Jackson’s talent first-hand when he coached him at Boynton Beach (Fla.) Community High School. He witnessed up close Jackson’s potential to thrive as a quarterback at the next level, contra the plans of some college coaches who may have thought otherwise. “That became one of the first questions that we all asked when people would come in and recruit him: What are you recruiting him as?” said Swain, who retired in 2014. “We know he’s an athlete, he’s going to be better than any athlete that you have at the skill positions, but what are you looking at him as? And Lamar was adamant about being a quarterback, and I don’t blame him.”
When Jackson ultimately signed with Louisville over Florida in 2015, one of the main reasons the Cardinals were such an attractive option was Petrino’s offense. “I didn’t want to be labeled as an athlete,” Jackson said. “Being in college, I wanted to be labeled as a quarterback who can compete from both running and throwing.” Jackson didn’t just compete this season. He pressed up against the limits of what a dual-threat quarterback can accomplish in a system that accentuates his skill set. The Florida State win, in particular, felt like a validation of Jackson’s capacity to terrorize opposing defenses, no matter the competition level, but the play that most impressed Swain this season came against a much weaker opponent: the aforementioned touchdown pass against Virginia. The 29-yard gem instantiated Jackson’s growth as a thrower.
“How much he’s progressed as being a pocket passer,” Swain said when asked if Jackson’s season surprised him. “I knew he had it in him to do that, but to have the discipline he’s displayed of being able to take his coaching from his college coaches and to progress like that.” Jackson is the nation’s top player at his position, but he wants to get better. This desire became clear when he gave himself a D grade following the win over the Seminoles, and he mentioned recently that his goal during games is to complete 90% of his passes. “Lamar is trying to be perfect in all that he’s able to do,” said Van Warren, Jackson’s longtime personal trainer. But Jackson probably wouldn’t let complacency set in even if he lowered his standards for personal performance. His mother, Felicia Jones, is quick to point out Jackson’s errors and critique his play. “She would tell me the bad things I did,” Jackson said. “She wouldn’t really tell me how good I did. She would be like, ‘Oh you threw an interception’ or ‘You did this and that.’” He added, “So it was like, ‘Alright Ma, I’ve got to go fix it.’”
However much Jackson improves this off-season, he will enter 2017 as the favorite to win the Heisman again. The ridiculously high bar he set this season will make it difficult for him to titillate voters the way he did in 2016, but it would be silly to discount his chances. With another year in Petrino’s system, it’s not unreasonable to think he could eclipse what he achieved as a sophomore. “I have to step my game up a lot more,” Jackson said. “I can’t have the same stats as this year.” Added Petrino, when asked about the prospect of Jackson improving, “I’m going to figure something out for him.” Coaches charged with crafting gameplans to stop Jackson will tremble at that possibility, and the track record of Heisman repeat hopefuls (only Ohio State’s Archie Griffin has won the award twice) suggests significant progress across the board may not even be enough for him to be in the same position a year from now. That discussion can be tabled for at least a few months.
On Saturday night, after he was announced as the winner, it seemed as if Jackson was still trying to make sense of what was going on. “For some reason my chest just started pumping very hard,” Jackson said. There were friends and family to thank and coaches to shout out and a speech to deliver in front of millions of people. After rising from his seat, dapping up the other finalists and greeting a selection of former Heisman winners on stage, Jackson stepped to the podium and tried to keep his composure, but he couldn’t hold back: “Crazy,” Jackson said. For him, sure. For anyone who watched him play this season, not so much.