TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — Nothing Lamar Jackson has done on the ground at Louisville has surprised Florida State's Dalvin Cook. Through the air? Color Cook impressed. "He'd been doing it to my team in high school, breaking long runs like that," Cook said. "I knew what he could do with his feet. He got better as a passer in that offense, in that system. Louisville did a great job of developing him as a passer."
Cook learned firsthand how much damage Jackson could do to a defense when Cook's Miami Central team faced Jackson's Boynton Beach High in the first round of the Class 6A playoffs in 2013. Jackson went wild, throwing for 248 yards and two touchdowns and rushing for 194 yards and two touchdowns. Unfortunately for Jackson, he had to carry his team. Cook had University of Miami-bound Joseph Yearby in the backfield with him and future Hurricanes left tackle Trevor Darling blocking for him. Central's defense featured current USF starting cornerback Deatrick Nichols, current Florida State reserve safety Calvin Brewton and Cook's cousin Jamel Cook, who is a freshman safety at USC. Cook's Rockets scored 48 first-half points and rested the starters for much of the second half en route to a 55–37 win. After watching Jackson up close, Cook couldn't help but wonder how good Jackson would have made a powerhouse team such as Miami Booker T. Washington or Fort Lauderdale's St. Thomas Aquinas. "If you put him on another team like St. Thomas or Booker T.," Cook said, "he'd have taken those programs to another level."
The next time Cook's team faced Jackson's team, the halftime score was radically different (a 7–6 Louisville lead in last year's meeting) but the end result—a 41–21 Florida State win—told the same story. Jackson was a transcendent talent (307 passing yards and three passing touchdowns against the Seminoles), but Cook (163 rushing yards, two rushing touchdowns) was a transcendent talent with a much better supporting cast. So when Jackson's Cardinals meet Cook's Seminoles on Saturday in Louisville, will the talent gap between the two teams have closed enough to give Jackson a chance to finally beat Cook?
An unfortunate injury to Florida State's most versatile defender might make all the difference. Seminoles sophomore Derwin James tore cartilage in his left knee during Saturday's win against Charleston Southern. He had surgery this week to repair the damage, but Seminoles coach Jimbo Fisher said Tuesday that James would miss at least five to seven weeks. The emphasis is on "at least," because the standard rehabilitation time for that procedure is three months.
Why is James so important? Because the 6' 3", 211-pound sophomore is one of those human Swiss Army Knives who can play nearly any position on a defense. He's also the vocal leader of Florida State's defense and (usually) the player who ensures the Seminoles' secondary is properly aligned. Florida State uses James at every defensive position except nose tackle, and his skill set would be especially useful against a dynamic running quarterback such as Jackson.
James could have spied Jackson, stalking him every play to ensure Jackson couldn't break a long run. Or the Seminoles could have slid James down to the line of scrimmage on long third downs. They did that last year and James blasted in untouched and sacked Jackson, causing a fumble that Florida State recovered and Cook turned into points with a 14-yard touchdown run. Now, someone else will have to fill those roles. Those someones will have to be multiple because James is unique in his ability to handle such a diverse workload. "I don't know if I've ever coached a guy that I said could play anywhere on the field," Fisher said of James this past off-season. "I think he could play any position. The other thing is his intelligence. Think about all the intelligence you have to have to play all those positions and not make mistakes."
So how do the Seminoles replace James and still contain Jackson? It won't be easy. Sophomore A.J. Westbrook is in line to fill in for James at free safety, though senior cornerback Marquez White may make the pre-snap calls on that side of the field. "If I have to make the calls on my side, I feel comfortable making them," White said. "Me and [James], we play on the same side, but now he's not there. I wouldn't want to leave it to the young guys to make the calls."
Meanwhile, if the Seminoles want to spy Jackson, they may be able to turn to linebacker Matthew Thomas. Thomas is a junior, but injuries and suspensions derailed his career prior to this season. The 6' 3", 227-pounder is healthy and in good standing now, and his freakish speed for his size would allow him to keep Jackson from breaking through the second level if Thomas takes the proper angle.
The Seminoles did an excellent job against Jackson on the ground last year, never allowing him to carry more than 10 yards and holding him to 32 yards on 19 carries (including sacks). Because Louisville's offensive line struggled to block Florida State's front four, the Seminoles could keep a linebacker on the second level and drop six into coverage. Passing plays that broke down ended with Jackson getting chased into the waiting arms of a linebacker or safety — usually for a minimal gain.
Florida State's secondary proved vulnerable against Ole Miss in the season opener, and the Seminoles' defense didn't clamp down until the second half when coordinator Charles Kelly adjusted and used four defensive ends on the line to chase quarterback Chad Kelly. The Rebels' couldn't handle the speed of that particular Florida State front when pass blocking, and they steadfastly refused to try to establish a running game. Louisville is less likely to fall prey to such a gambit because Jackson and the Cardinals will run the ball and force the defense to respect that possibility.
That could force Florida State to keep a more traditional defense on the field against an offense that has three players (James Quick, Jamari Staples and Jaylen Smith) averaging at least 24.3 yards a catch. Sure, the Cardinals have only played Charlotte and Syracuse, but those numbers would be impressive against air. "We've been able to get the deep ball back in our offense, which has really helped us," Louisville coach Bobby Petrino told reporters this week. "Our receivers have done a great job of getting open and going up and catching balls that are contested. We know we're not going to be as open as we were the last couple of weeks, but I still believe we'll be able to get some matchups and get open."
They probably will, so it will be up to Florida State's defense to either flush Jackson toward a waiting spy or get Jackson on the ground in the backfield. Defensive end DeMarcus Walker, who had four and a half sacks in the second half against Ole Miss, said it's critical for a defender to take down Jackson when he gets his hands on him. If Jackson slips away, he could be headed for the end zone or planting and throwing to a receiver whose man simply couldn't cover him for as long as Jackson could keep the play alive. Look for Florida State to employ the Zombie look—defensive linemen out of their stances prowling along the line of scrimmage before the snap—again this season to try to confuse Louisville's blockers. This technique worked against the Cardinals last year and against Ole Miss on Sept. 5. If the Seminoles can get to Jackson with four rushers, it makes everyone else's job much easier.
Jackson's one-time high school nemesis could help the Seminoles limit Jackson as well. If Cook and the offense can hog the ball and keep Jackson on the sideline, it will make the defense's job easier. If the Seminoles can jump to an early lead — which would be a drastic reversal from their past two meetings with Louisville — they would force Louisville into a chuck-and-duck offense. The longer Jackson is a threat to run or throw, the more dangerous he becomes.
Jackson didn't have enough talent on his team to beat Cook's team in high school, but James's injury might have changed the supporting cast math enough to give Jackson and the Cardinals a chance in the players' second collegiate meeting. It will be up to all of the Seminoles to pitch in to contain a player capable of taking over if he has even a little help.