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Lamar Jackson May Be Even Scarier This Season

In case anyone had any doubts, Lamar Jackson won the Heisman Trophy last year for a reason. And his 525-yard game against UNC makes it pretty clear that he's ready to do it all again in 2017.

By the time Lamar Jackson claimed the Heisman Trophy last December, calls to discredit his accomplishments had become deafening, and there were no shortage of commentators who believed he didn’t deserve the award. That thinking rapidly gained acceptance as Clemson’s Deshaun Watson felled Alabama in the national championship game, and the epic Rose Bowl duel between USC’s Sam Darnold and Penn State’s Saquon Barkley pushed the Louisville quarterback further away from the spotlight.

Those detractors should consider what happened on Saturday, in Louisville’s 47–35 win over North Carolina in Chapel Hill, Jackson’s way of saying, “I’m back.” The junior completed 25 of his 39 pass attempts for 393 yards and 3 touchdowns, while adding 132 yards and three more touchdowns on the ground as Louisville moved to 2-0 in advance of next week’s matchup with the Tigers at Papa John’s Cardinal Stadium. Jackson was responsible for 525 of Louisville's 705 yards—that's 74%—and in dicing up North Carolina’s defense, he flung the ball across the yard, adroitly evaded pass rushers closing in on him and scooted through running lanes as they emerged.

As ESPN writer David Hale noted on Twitter, over the first two weeks of this season, against Purdue and the Tar Heels, Jackson has posted 1,010 total yards, just short of his total yardage (1,015) over the two weeks of last season. In addition, according to ESPN Stats & Information, Jackson is only the second player in FBS history to record 300 passing yards and 100 rushing yards in consecutive games. 

Jackson was not perfect—the fourth-down incompletion to wide receiver Jaylen Smith late in the second quarter was a puzzling gaffe, and coach Bobby Petrino’s sideline reaction reflected that—but he did call to mind the nigh-unstoppable dual-threat force that grabbed the college football world’s attention early last season and never really let go. His 43-yard touchdown dash in the third quarter would have delighted anyone unfamiliar with Jackson’s speed, but a different TD strike earlier in the game hinted at his development as a passer.

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If Jackson can begin making that kind of throw on the regular, he’ll have defensive coordinators pining for the sophomore version of himself. That sounds ridiculous, because it won Jackson the most prestigious individual honor in American sports last season, but that doesn’t make it any less true. Jackson is already one of the most effective running quarterbacks in college football history, but his passing accuracy remains a weakness. So far this season, it’s been clear he’s well on his way to mitigating it.

Perhaps it’s too early to say how much Jackson has improved from last season. He’s only faced two teams that are unlikely to factor in the College Football Playoff race (The other one is the Boilermakers). Next Saturday’s meeting with Clemson’s ferocious defense will be a better gauge of how far he’s come, but Jackson’s already proven he can unhinge quality defenses. Keep in mind the numbers he hung on the Tigers while going blow-for-blow with Watson in Death Valley a year ago: 457 yards of total offense and three touchdowns in a six-point loss.

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It’s not as if Jackson has been invisible in the Heisman conversation through Week 2. As of Tuesday, he topped Bovada’s odds, and that should hold after Saturday, unless someone else turns in a spectacular performance in a later game. But the preseason expectations for what Jackson will do over the next three months did seem disproportionate with the evidence on the field. Jackson can’t change that by himself. He can just keep playing so well that nobody will be able to defend neglecting him in favor of other candidates.