The Evolution of Lamar Jackson: Heisman Winner Looking to Take 'The Next Step'

Matt HayesSenior National College Football WriterJuly 12, 2017

Louisville's Lamar Jackson answers questions during a news conference after winning the Heisman Trophy award, Saturday, Dec. 10, 2016, in New York. (AP Photo/Julie Jacobson)
Julie Jacobson/Associated Press

Lamar Jackson is struggling. With what? Oh, just with "everything." He says it grinning.

For the greatest individual show in college football, like it or not, this is a time of change. The 2017 season isn't just going to be about running it back. It's about taking "the next step."

There's a time to win championships and a time to prepare for the NFL. The greedy think they can do both. The insatiable know they can.

"I promise you, winning a national championship is still the No.1 goal." Jackson says. "There will be no down year for me. I love this game, this team, too much for that."

But here he is, the reigning Heisman winner, preparing for a season in a way that completely changes what made him and his team the most dangerous offensive combination in the game last season—in a way that we've seen damage potential contenders in the past.

The suped-up, 21st-century version of Michael Vick you saw running the Louisville offense from the shotgun last year will take snaps under center this season. A lot of them. Maybe even more than 50 percent.

This, of course, begs the question: Why?

Why take the very thing that makes Jackson unique—his dynamic running and scrambling out of the shotgun, and ability to make something out of nothing when a play breaks down—and muck it up? Why worry about a reality Jackson doesn't have to live until one of those 32 NFL franchises spends a first-round pick and throws millions at him?

LEXINGTON, KY - NOVEMBER 28:  Lamar Jackson #8 of the Louisville Cardinals runs for a touchdown during the game against the Kentucky Wildcats at Commonwealth Stadium on November 28, 2015 in Lexington, Kentucky.  (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)
Andy Lyons/Getty Images

"Because it will make him better," Louisville coach Bobby Petrino says without a hint of hesitation.

And it will get him ready for the NFL.

"[Petrino] wants to make me NFL ready, a better player," Jackson says. "I want to make our team better. We're on the same page."

Of course, it's not that simple. There is a clear potential sacrifice of wins by scaling back on Jackson's flash and dash to prepare him for the NFL's style and substance.

Cases in point: Johnny Manziel and Dak Prescott.

After Manziel won the Heisman as a freshman in 2012, the Texas A&M staff zeroed in on showing "he was more than the fastest guy on the field," says Texas A&M coach Kevin Sumlin. They cut his carries by 57. His passing numbers increased across the board, and he was selected in the first round (22nd overall by the Browns), but his rushing yards were nearly halved (1,401 to 759) and the Aggies went from 11-2 in 2012 to 9-4 in 2013—including 0-4 in the regular season against ranked teams.

Mississippi State tried the same thing, cutting Prescott's rush numbers by 50 carries and his yards by more than 400, while his pass numbers, like Manziel, were up across the board. At one point in 2014, the Bulldogs were ranked No. 1 in the nation. By the end of 2015, they were closing out a meaningless bowl win over N.C. State after going 0-4 vs. ranked teams in the regular season.

But..."You have a guy (Prescott) who went from probably not getting drafted, to the Cowboys taking a chance on him in the fourth round because there was tape of him playing the position how it's played here," an NFL scout says. "At the end of the day, your tape is your resume."

Jackson's game tape through two seasons is a boatload of highlights, from the unthinkable to the improbable. But all from the shotgun, until now.

For the quarterback, going under center is so much more than simply receiving the snap and executing the play: You have to learn to call the play in the huddle, send motion, read fronts and coverages and, yes, take the snap. Cleanly.

It's only then that the process of being under center truly begins. It's three-, five- and seven-step drops; it's footwork and shoulder framing and going through progressions and convincing yourself—and trusting your offensive line—that holding the ball one more second will allow a receiver to gain separation and increase the completion window and catch a throw.

All of that after a play-action fake where your back will be turned to the defense for as many as three seconds—and everything could change in coverage from a pre-snap read when you turn and see the field again.

Welcome to playing the position as the NFL does, Lamar.

Says Petrino: "The best part about Lamar is his eagerness to learn. He wants to know everything about the position, about the game. This will be successful because he will put in the time and effort to make it successful."  

"I'm far from a finished product," Jackson says.

As wildly successful as last year was for Jackson, teams began to figure out what Louisville was doing. Because of that, the Cardinals' biggest coaching advantage—Petrino's ability to out-scheme opponents—wasn't fully executed. Louisville lost its final three games because the Cardinals were exposed as predictable with Jackson in the shotgun, and were a fatigued team that didn't have its typical electric legs on offense.

Jackson had three passing touchdowns and three interceptions in the last three games, and failed to score in the Citrus Bowl against LSU. His final line in that game was an indicator of where things were headed for 2017: 10-for-27 for 153 yards passing with 33 rushing yards on 26 carries.

ORLANDO, FL - DECEMBER 31: Lamar Jackson #8 of the Louisville Cardinals looks on against the LSU Tigers during the Buffalo Wild Wings Citrus Bowl at Camping World Stadium on December 31, 2016 in Orlando, Florida. LSU defeated Louisville 29-9. (Photo by Jo
Joe Robbins/Getty Images

When you're standing in the shotgun play after play, you're making decisions play after play—and there's no physical or mental break. The Louisville run game was essentially Jackson giving or keeping on the zone read after reading the defensive end.

The stress of the passing game, meanwhile, was compounded by Jackson breaking containment and running too quickly—and getting sacked or eliminating the chance for a big play. By the end of the season, he was mentally wiped out. "A long year," Jackson says. "We were definitely not the same team late in the year."

Before spring practice began, Petrino heard legendary quarterback Peyton Manning talk about how calling plays wore on him over his NFL career. The mental stress of making the right call at the right time, and then having to pull it off physically, was overwhelming late in his career.

That last month of the season, when Louisville scored 10 points against Houston, nine against LSU and lost to an inferior Kentucky team, it began to sink in. Petrino had to alleviate the load on Jackson—not just to get him ready for the NFL, but also to find another offensive option that would make the Cardinals a better team.

"It's going to be a balancing act of not making him make a decision every single play," Petrino says. "We need to find time where he can relax and hand the ball off and let the offensive line and running backs work. But we can't take away what he does best."

One factor that might help make Jackson—and Louisville—more successful in this transition is Petrino. If Jackson is going to redefine who he is in a mere handful of months, Petrino's maybe the perfect guy to guide him. Super Bowl-winning coach Tom Coughlin once told me Petrino is the most audacious quarterbacks coach and play-caller he'd ever been around. He is, by many accounts, the most demanding and dynamic at any level of football.

Timothy D. Easley/Associated Press

"[Jackson] has to get ready to play at the next level, and not many guys will make that happen better than [Petrino]," another NFL scout says. "He's this great unknown right now. He's full of potential but extremely raw in the nuances of playing the position in our league. Those little things make a difference between playing 10 years and crapping out after four.

"If he shows he can play the position under center, and continue to play at a high level, that's going to alleviate a lot of anxiety with a lot of teams."

For Petrino, this transition isn't unconventional. What was unconventional was two years ago when he signed an unthinkably gifted athlete who also played quarterback (and hell, if it didn't work out at quarterback, Jackson could be an All-American at some other position).

Two years later, Jackson has accounted for 74 total touchdowns (32 rushing) and a Heisman Trophy in 2016—all because Petrino shelved his NFL-style attack for the more user-friendly shotgun-and-zone-read system preferred by most in college football.

That all changed this spring, when Petrino began the annual 15 practices by going an entire week with Jackson under center. No shotgun, no zone-read run game. No quick-game catch and throw after the snap.

CORONADO, CA - MAY 27:  Lamar Jackson of the University of Louisville attends Steve Clarkson's 13th Annual Quarterback Retreat on May 27, 2017 in Coronado, California.  (Photo by Joe Scarnici/Getty Images)
Joe Scarnici/Getty Images

Jackson was 13 the last time he played quarterback under center, a tall (6-feet), lanky kid who was more athletic and faster than everyone on the field. A player, on pure talent alone, who led his team to an unbeaten season and a youth league championship.

We've already seen what pure talent has done for Jackson at the college level. Now it's time to find out what playing the position in its truest sense can bring.

Play-action passes. Throwing on time. Going through progressions. Trusting your protection. Playing the position like an NFL quarterback.

That also means taking the one thing that makes Jackson so uniquely special—his ability to create chaos for defenses in the run game and scrambling—and making it a second option.

The sound of that, Jackson is told, is precarious at best. He smiles and nods, almost like he agrees. He knows it's a struggle.

Then the greedy, I-want-it-all grin is back on his face.

"Everyone thinks I'm a guy who just runs around and makes plays," he says. "I can't wait to get out there and prove everyone wrong. Anyone who thinks we can't do it, just watch. Watch us win a championship."

The insatiable know they can.