Can dual-threat QB Lamar Jackson elevate his game and lift Louisville into ACC contention in 2016?
LOUISVILLE, Ky.—For all of the ankle-breaking, made-you-look moments that defined Lamar Jackson's freshman season, the quarterback's biggest fake-out probably came in high school. It was Feb. 4, 2015, and Jackson, a four-star prospect out of Boynton Beach (Fla.) High, entered a packed auditorium to take part in his school's National Signing Day festivities. Jackson's outfit offered no hints about his college of choice, but a certain accessory did: a blue Florida backpack, slung over his shoulder.
The Gators swag flummoxed most of the students and faculty in attendance. During the previous August, Jackson had verbally committed to Louisville. But Jackson took his final official visit to Florida in the week leading up to Signing Day. A late push by coach Jim McElwain—as well as an ambiguous Gators backpack—made Cardinals fans sweat at the 11th hour.
Jackson's strategic wardrobe, however, was little more than a short-lived ploy. "I already knew where I was going," he says now. After Jackson sat down at a table with his teammates, he dropped the backpack and unzipped his jacket to reveal a red-and-white golf shirt featuring a Louisville logo. The crowd cheered as he reaffirmed his commitment to the Cardinals.
Fast-forward 14 months and Louisville fans are quite familiar with Jackson's ability. The quarterback enters his sophomore season as one of the most exciting players in the ACC. He burst on to the scene in 2015, starting eight games and compiling 2,800 yards of total offense with 23 touchdowns. In just one season, the dual-threat Jackson set the program's career record for rushing yards by a quarterback (960).
What should scare the rest of the ACC is that Jackson remains relatively raw. This month the quarterback will cap his first spring with the Cardinals, and for the first time since Teddy Bridgewater was at Louisville no one questions the team's future under center. "Hopefully we have a better record [than we did] last year," Jackson says. "That's all I can say right now."
Last season Louisville recovered from a 0–3 start to finish 8–5, completing the year with a 27–21 win over Texas A&M in the Music City Bowl. Jackson's emergence came as a boon to coach Bobby Petrino and company; the Cardinals had entered the fall amid a race between three signal-callers—Kyle Bolin, Reggie Bonnafon and Will Gardner—but the freshman Jackson shined in the Sept. 5 opener against Auburn.
Though Bonnafon got the start against the Tigers, Petrino sent Jackson out on the field after Auburn raced to a 14–0 lead in the second quarter. That advantage ballooned to 24–0 in the third, but Louisville looked like a different team in rallying behind Jackson. The freshman led the Cardinals to three touchdowns and a field goal in their final four possessions, falling just short of a wild comeback in a 31–24 loss.
Jackson compiled 206 total yards with two touchdowns in that defeat, displaying poise that belied his age. "The way he handled the other players, he was not intimidated by that situation at all," says Garrick McGee, Louisville's offensive coordinator at the time who now holds the same role at Illinois. "That was a nationally televised game against a high-profile team, and the way he acted on the sideline really impressed me. He wasn't wondering what was going on; he was saying, 'We've got to hurry up and score so we can win.'"
Jackson added several clips to his highlight reel as the season progressed. He set a school record for rushing yards in a game by a quarterback (184) in a 45–3 rout of Samford on Sept. 26—then surpassed that mark twice, including during a 226-yard outing against Texas A&M on Dec. 30. He passed for 307 yards in a 41–21 loss at Florida State on Oct. 17, and he finished second in ACC Offensive Rookie of the Year voting.
Still, by Jackson's own admission, he flew by the seat of his pants for most of the season. He arrived on campus last summer, and he ascended to the starting job by Week 2 thanks largely to the struggles of the veterans listed above him on the depth chart. For much of the fall, he was familiarizing himself with the playbook. "I wasn't really used to the plays," Jackson says. "I was learning them throughout the year."
But Jackson's approach shifted toward the end of the season. During bowl preparation, McGee forced his quarterback to wake up at 6 a.m. for a week straight and plant himself in the film room. "Nobody's in the room," McGee told Jackson, "but you and the video." Two hours per day for seven days, Jackson had an assignment: watch every play from his freshman season and analyze it. What mistakes did I make? What did the defense do to stop me?
Suddenly, the game began to slow down. Jackson noticed a need to improve his footwork and accuracy, as he ranked as just the eight-most efficient passer in the ACC. Before the Music City Bowl, he started making frequent stops by McGee's office with questions. "At first he thought it was a punishment," McGee says. "He thought I was mad at him. But as it got going, he started to like it. He started to see things develop."
Louisville saw a different player the next time Jackson stepped on the field. He threw for 227 yards with two touchdowns against A&M, and he carried 22 times for 226 yards (10.3 per carry) with two more scores. He became the third player in FBS history to throw and rush for at least 200 yards in a bowl game, joining Vince Young (2005) and Johnny Manziel ('12), both Heisman Trophy winners.
Though Jackson has made it a point this off-season to avoid relying solely on his athleticism, his natural gifts will remain a hallmark of his game. This spring Louisville clocked him at 4.42 seconds in the 40-yard dash, and last summer a clip of Jackson went viral after he beat NBA guard Rajon Rondo in a footrace. "He may be able to make more plays on accident than a lot of people can make on purpose," McGee says. However, becoming a more fervent football nerd has paid off for Jackson, who has evolved into a better student of the game. "He seems much more mature in the game now," junior wide receiver Jamari Staples said. "Instead of just reading one side of the play, he's going through his full progression and making the right choice."
Adds senior tight end Cole Hikutini: "He knows where everyone is now instead of getting flustered and relying on his feet, I think, as much."
If a more seasoned Jackson shows up this fall, Louisville could make a charge up the ACC standings. The Cardinals return their top three receivers, including Staples, who led the roster in receiving yards (638) in 2015 despite missing four games with injury. Four starters are back on the offensive line, too, as is senior tailback Brandon Radcliff, who rushed for 634 yards with seven touchdowns last year.
Yet Jackson realizes the group's hopes depend on him taking a step forward as a sophomore. For a player known for his ability to fake out defenders, his directive from the Louisville staff this spring is simple.
"They said to run the show," Jackson says, "and be the general out on the field."