HEISMAN 2016: The spotlight isn't always easy for Jackson
LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) Lamar Jackson's breakout into a Heisman Trophy favorite on the field has also required coming out of his shell when he's away from it.
Finding a comfort zone remains a work in progress for Louisville's sophomore quarterback, who on Monday was selected as a finalist for the award given to college football's best player. Flattered by being mentioned as the Heisman favorite since early September, Jackson has answered queries about his trophy prospects in soft-spoken tones.
He has always deferred to helping the No. 16 Cardinals (9-3) win a national championship, a scenario now out of the question after back-to-back losses, and talked about his team rather than himself.
''Actually, I just stayed in my room and tried not to pay attention to it,'' Jackson said over the weekend. ''I just tried to go out there and win games and get better with your teammates each and every week because if you fall off anything can happen. So I just tried not to listen to it and just play football.''
''He hasn't been concerned about that. He has been worried about his performance and how I can help my teammates,'' Louisville coach Bobby Petrino said. ''You have really got to take your hat off to him on how much he has handled it.''
But the spotlight is now on the 6-foot-3, 205-pound Jackson as he waits to hear his name called on Saturday night in New York. His life will change if he becomes Louisville's first Heisman winner, but those who know Jackson have already seen one in him.
''I think he's handling it much better than expected,'' said Evan Caruso, athletic director at Boynton Beach (Florida) Community High School, where Jackson played high school football.
''But I don't think that anybody can prepare for that (possibility) as a freshman or sophomore,'' he added. ''It's come upon him so fast, but the good thing is he's not overwhelmed or egotistical. He stays humble, driven and grounded.''
Jackson accounted for an Atlantic Coast Conference-record 51 touchdowns (30 passing, 21 rushing) and 4,928 offensive yards while leading Louisville (9-3) to the No. 3 ranking twice. More than half of his TDs were accumulated during the first five games, a stretch that established him as the frontrunner.
Interview demands for Jackson increased steadily, a tough ask of someone who likes his privacy and prefers to talk about things on the field. The school has limited Jackson's availability to postgame and selected requests, allowing him to slowly adapt to the media and public and open up in very small doses.
''We've worked with him and as the season has progressed, he's evolved,'' said Louisville football spokesman Rocco Gasparro. ''But a lot of the time he's a private person who likes to keep to himself.''
Jackson has shared a little of himself with fans, taking time to greet cancer patient Amzie Smith with a hug, a smile and an autographed football before facing Duke in October. But for the most part the football field is where he expresses himself best, revealing his emotions with spontaneous gestures indicative of the fun he's having.
Said Jackson, ''If anything, it (the attention) has made me want to play harder. I just want to make it possible for us to be the best.''
Jackson has stuck his arm up to indicate first downs. He celebrated his seventh and final TD at Boston College by drawing his hand across his face in what some on social media wondered was a throat-slashing gesture. Jackson later issued a statement clarifying the gesture as ''zip it'' rather than being disrespectful.
Then there are the Heisman poses he struck after touchdowns against Kentucky in what he said was an attempt to bring excitement to a rivalry game. His pose after a late game-tying score became somewhat ironic when Jackson fumbled while driving the Cardinals toward a go-ahead score late in the game. Kentucky recovered and kicked a field goal for a 41-38 win.
If he wins Saturday, that all may be forgotten.
HEISMAN-DEFINING MOMENT: Jackson leapt onto the radar - literally - with his hurdle of a Syracuse defender en route to a TD. His signature performance came in the next game against then-No. 2 Florida State, when he rushed for four of his five TDs in a 63-20 shellacking . The highlight was his 47-yard TD run in which he faked one Seminole defender and spun off another on his way to the end zone.
BEST GAME: Jackson's 610-yard, five-TD outburst at Syracuse including that now-famous hurdle stands out statistically. But rallying Louisville from an 18-point deficit to lead late at Clemson might have solidified his Heisman credentials. He passed for 295 of his 457 yards and accounted for three TDs in the 42-36 loss that came up a yard short on fourth down.
WORST GAME: Houston stifled Jackson in all phases, limiting him to a TD pass and 33 yards rushing with 11 sacks.
PRO PROSPECTS: He'd be a first-round NFL draft pick if the league took underclassmen. But since it doesn't, that discussion is on hold until next season.
AP Sports Writer Terrance Harris in Orlando, Florida, contributed to this report.
More AP college football: www.collegefootball.ap.org