Purdue defense faces daunting task against Heisman winner
INDIANAPOLIS (AP) Jeff Brohm never wanted the matchup against Lamar Jackson.
When he was coaching Western Kentucky, Brohm agreed to play his alma mater only if it was after Jackson's graduation date.
Turns out, Brohm didn't get his wish and Purdue's new coach and his defensive staff will try to find something that will slow down No. 16 Louisville and its Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback on Saturday in Indianapolis.
''He is kind of like the LeBron James of college football,'' Brohm said. ''He is that incredible athlete that doesn't come along very often, and he is playing the quarterback position. While he probably is the best athlete on the field, he has quarterback skills, which make him more dangerous.''
The 6-foot-3, 211-pound junior was named the Louisville starter during his freshman season and wound up finishing second in the ACC's offensive rookie of the year voting.
He was even more impressive last season. Jackson leapt into the Heisman conversation in Week 2 by jumping over a Syracuse defender on one of his four scoring runs. Producing 610 total yards and five TDs didn't hurt, either. The next week, against No. 2 Florida State, Jackson became the front-runner after producing 362 total yards and five more TDs in a 63-20 rout.
At times, it seemed nobody could touch him.
He threw six TD passes against Charlotte, ran for four scores twice and three more against Boston College. When the season ended, Jackson had thrown for 3,543 yards and 30 TDs, rushed for a school record 1,571 yards and 21 TDs - setting new ACC records in both categories by a quarterback - and broke the ACC's single-season record by accounting for 51 TDs.
Jackson was the runaway Heisman winner and the youngest ever, accepting the award 28 days before his 20th birthday.
''I'll tell you what I like about Lamar. He goes out on the practice field and tries to outwork every single person out there. He loves it, he enjoys it,'' coach Bobby Petrino said earlier this week. ''He tries to sprint all the way to the end zone and then jog all the way back and not miss the next play ever. He comes to practice and meetings focused. He wants to be coached and he wants to get better, and he really likes his teammates.
''He truly loves being part of a team, and if you were in the locker room walking around, you wouldn't know that the Heisman trophy winner was in that locker room. He's just Lamar.''
A season-ending, three-game losing streak raised questions about Jackson's future.
Some questioned whether the Florida native could excel in the more pocket-passing savvy NFL. Others looked at Jackson's combined totals from those final three games, 882 yards and three TDs, and wondered if the defenses had finally caught up to him. The theory was that by loading up against the run and daring him to throw , Jackson became less proficient at both.
Jackson hasn't wasted much time responding to the critics. He'd rather prove them wrong all over again, starting this weekend.
''I'm very eager (to play),'' Jackson said. ''A lot of people don't know what's going on inside with us and I'm ready to let them know. Nothing has changed.''
Brohm and his rebuilt defense know a challenge awaits.
The Boilermakers have six starters returning from a unit that allowed 38.3 points and 238.4 yards rushing per game, 115th out of 128 in 2016. Behind the veterans, Purdue is mostly young and lacks depth - a dangerous mix for a team that hasn't taken a single snap with a coaching staff that's committed to change.
''We haven't spent a lot of time on the past,'' co-defensive coordinator Nick Holt said. ''Adversity happens every day in life and it happens on game day. Good defenses and good football teams overcome that. We have to be mature enough to handle that when it happens.''
Brohm's concern is Jackson will challenge Purdue in every facet - with his feet, his arm, his experience and even what Petrino now describes as his improved vision.
It's a frightening proposition for anyone but particularly for a former quarterback who knew better than to schedule a date against Jackson back at WKU.
''The ball is in his hands every play, and while he can throw it, he can run it, so the scary part to me is his legs, his running ability and his athletic ability,'' Brohm said. ''He took a team that was pretty good to even higher levels because of his play. He is so athletic and is a special player and a tough matchup.''
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