The Education of Lamar Jackson: How Louisville QB Went from Project to Superstar

Greg CouchNational ColumnistSeptember 7, 2016

Louisville quarterback Lamar Jackson walks to the sidelines after an injury during the second half of an NCAA college football game Saturday, Nov. 28, 2015, in Lexington, Ky. Louisville won the game 38-24. (AP Photo/David Stephenson)
Associated Press

LOUISVILLE, Ky. — The education of Lamar Jackson started with one very discouraging thought: "I can't study this."      

That's what Jackson remembers thinking when he opened his college playbook for the first time. It was the spring of 2015. He had just finished his starring run as Boynton Beach High's quarterback down in Florida. More than 50 points a game that year, and the nation's top college coaches were drooling.

He picked Louisville, knowing coach Bobby Petrino's history of developing QBs. Then Petrino delivered the playbook.

"It looked like foreign letters," Jackson remembers. "I came from a high school where I didn't have a playbook or anything like that. Coach would draw it up and get the headset on, and we'd go after it."

Keep this context in mind this season as you watch Jackson dominate the college level as a true sophomore:

The education of Lamar Jackson has been a rush job.

It began on that spring day, with Jackson thinking about how Petrino would turn him into an NFL quarterback and Petrino—well, Petrino was just thinking about the incredible, untackleable speed, quickness and direction shifts this kid had.

"If he can't play quarterback, he can play someplace else," Petrino figured.

You can't blame him for thinking that way. For the same reason, when Jackson arrived at high school four years earlier, his coach there, Rick Swain, watched one play before he turned to an assistant and told him they were changing offenses immediately. "He was so fast, it was ridiculous," Swain says.

NASHVILLE, TN - DECEMBER 30: Lamar Jackson #8 of the Louisville Cardinals runs the ball against the Texas A&M Aggies during the Franklin American Mortgage Music City Bowl at Nissan Stadium on December 30, 2015 in Nashville, Tennessee. Louisville defeated
Joe Robbins/Getty Images

Whether he could play quarterback at a college—much less NFL—level remained to be seen, but Petrino knew he'd be able to use that speed somehow.

And so when Jackson arrived on campus, he was not even named among the three guys who might be the starting quarterback. The playbook was still Greek to him, as were progressions, tight ends in motion and blitzes. Darn blitzes.

That was a year ago. A few days ago, he threw for six touchdowns and ran for two more.

So yes, this has been a rush job, but it's also been a process. There are details, lots of details, that go into the education of a budding superstar and avoiding the issues that modern hurry-up, no-huddle offenses can create by oversimplifying the most complex position on the field.

The education started at home. Jackson's mom would pick him up at high school carrying his playbook, and they would sit down together to figure it out. It continued with Jackson wearing virtual reality goggles at Louisville. It has included lonely daily sessions at 6 a.m. in one of Louisville's football meeting rooms, sometimes the big one, where Jackson was instructed to watch film of himself, over and over, so he could see what everyone on the field was doing. It was just Jackson and film.

And maybe an order of McDonald's hash browns, too.

"At first, I was like, 'Why are they trying to make me do this?'" Jackson says. "'I'm trying to sleep.' It was crazy. I'd watch my bad plays—my good plays, too."

The truth is, at first he wasn't even sure exactly what he was watching. Then it started making sense, and he realized he enjoyed it. "When I started getting more into it, I realized, 'This is what I'm here for.'"

There is a much easier way to go about this. Just put Jackson in the read-option offense, where plays are called for him, he doesn't have to take the snap from right under the center, and he can just run around or quickly make throws without having to read a defense.

But no. That's not what's happening at Louisville, because an unexpected thing happened when Jackson showed up on campus. It turned out he can pass. Big-time. Not just throw. Pass.

Besides, Jackson has no dream about running the read-option, anyway. Petrino is a pro-style coach. And Jackson believes that's the only way to make it in the NFL. Again, that's what he's here for.

"I noticed a lot of dual-threat quarterbacks in the shotgun or in the pistol, a lot of them don't last forever," Jackson says. "I want to be in the pocket."

Jackson doesn't like to be compared with "dual-threat" quarterbacks, even though he is a threat both running and passing. In some ways, Petrino says, that term itself has a strangely limiting connotation.

"What you see now is the recruiting thing has all changed," Petrino says. "Now, those recruiting services are ranking guys as dual threats or as a good passer. You could be the best thrower in the entire country, but because you can also run, then you'll just be over here in the dual-threat category."

Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson told Bleacher Report recently that he considers the dual-threat term to be racial code for a black quarterback. By extension and stereotype, that could end up pigeonholing black quarterbacks as runners.

Jackson, who, like Watson, is black, doesn't see it that way. He says that by now everyone has seen black quarterbacks passing.

"Cam [Newton] can pass. Michael Vick can pass," he says. "Nah, I don't think that. Even in high school, I was balanced. It's just that my run plays were dynamic."

Petrino says he knew the day of Jackson's first practice, when he saw Jackson snap his wrist hard and powerfully on a pass, that he was Louisville's quarterback of the future. Turned out, he was the quarterback of the present, too.

Mark Humphrey/Associated Press/Associated Press

"That was the thing that jumped out at us last year, was just how well he could throw the ball," says Petrino, whose son, Nick, has become Louisville's quarterbacks coach and is working directly with Jackson. "We knew he could throw the deep ball, but we didn't know he was that good of a passer when we recruited him.

"He's done a great job of working with his technique and consistency of his drops. He's really coachable. He kind of reminds me of when I was in the NFL with Mark Brunell, who had unbelievable fire, but he really wanted to be coached, too.

"I coached a kid [Tyler Wilson at Arkansas] who played great for us for two years, but it took him three years to do it. Since he was in the eighth grade, he was all no-huddle, shotgun. He never called a play in the huddle, never put a guy in motion, never shifted tight ends, never had his hand underneath the center. He would drop the snap. The great thing with Lamar was that when we put him under center, taking the snap was never an issue. Then, all we had to do was work on his footwork and get him in spots and things like that."

Swain says that while he usually had Jackson in a no-huddle in high school, he had Jackson take roughly 50 snaps from center every day after practice. The idea was to get him ready to play at higher levels.

"Lamar is a 4.3 sprinter," Swain says. "People are beginning to see he is truly a quarterback as much as an athlete. And that's the part that's pleasing to me because I knew that he's a true quarterback. You know, there has been this stigma for so long that just because you can run a little bit, you're just considered an athlete even though you've possessed all the qualities of a quarterback.

"You have to be 6'5" and slow to be a quarterback? That's not the case."

But still, Jackson came to Louisville as a freshman who thought the playbook looked like it was written in Greek. Petrino put him in the first game last season—against Auburn—for his first experience. Jackson says he thought he might go in for a play or two, but Petrino says he always planned to use him more. He just didn't tell Jackson. No need to make him nervous.

And on Jackson's first collegiate play, he…

Threw an interception.

"I choked a little bit," he says. "I was a halfback on that play; it was a trick play. But it didn't work out the way we did all week in practice. When I got the ball in my hand, I paused for a second and was like, 'This is my first college play—my first snap.' Then I saw what was coming at me and was like, 'OH MY GOD. Get rid of the ball!'

"After that, I was just hoping Coach would put me back in. I thought my chances are slim."

Petrino did put him back in, and Jackson nearly led the team all the way back from a huge deficit.

Jackson says he was getting to know the plays and wanted to look from one receiver to the next, but "if a receiver wasn't open, I just took off. I'd try to go to a checkdown, but just take off then."

That, Petrino says, is all about what a young quarterback sees in the pocket, particularly a quarterback who has grown up in today's modern high school and college offenses, not spending time in the pocket.

It's a different world in there.

Jackson #8 of the Louisville Cardinals runs with the ball against the Boston College Eagles at Papa John's Cardinal Stadium on October 24, 2015 in Louisville, Kentucky.  (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)
Andy Lyons/Getty Images

"His instincts take over," Petrino says. "If stuff flashed in front of him, he would take off and run. As a quarterback, you drop back and your focus is downfield and all of a sudden, an other-color jersey flashes in front of you or they run a linebacker blitz.

"Sometimes your eyes come down on that and don't stay focused. Not one quarterback I've coached has not done that at one time or another. So what we've been working with Lamar is when all that color flashes in front of you, keep your focus down the field and stand in there and make the throws."

How do you get him to do that?

"What we did this spring was say, 'OK, we're going to work hard on throwing the ball on time,'" Petrino says. "When he took off and ran or left the pocket, I would just blow the whistle. He'd give me one of these—shrug, 'I would've run for a touchdown, Coach.' I'd say, 'I don't care. I want to see you throw for a touchdown.'

"So we just forced the issue. We took his legs away."

There was that. Between that and the film study making more and more sense, Jackson started to understand his mistakes.

"And we have the virtual reality now where you can put these goggles on and see the technique of the corner, see the safeties," Petrino says. "You can see fronts and blocking schemes. You can actually turn around and see the coaches behind you. It's really neat, and it's really good for learning and recognizing coverages.

"You can go back and look at the pre-snap. Now, when the ball was snapped, did the safeties move? You can go back and forth. It's just video, really, but when you've got the goggles on, you see everything. We really pounded away at it in spring and summer."

Jackson has learned. But Petrino says some of the things usually considered "natural intangibles" need to be worked on, too. For example, last year, Jackson was petrified to talk with the media. So he took a media class and also enlisted the help of a local reporter.

"In my class, they'd make us write something to persuade the crowd," he says. "Then we'd go up in front of the class and perform it. I wasn't even good with that! He's like, 'Look up! Speak up!' I'm trying."

That's the main thing. He's trying. Petrino had Jackson go to the ACC media days so he'd have to sit in front reporters and talk.

Chuck Burton/Associated Press/Associated Press

"He's the face of the team. That's part of it," Petrino says.

The face of a team that might finally be moving off the fringe and into the big time. Louisville beat lowly Charlotte 70-14 in the opener and now will play at Syracuse, which won't be able to stop Jackson, either. The Cardinals, ranked No. 13 in the Associated Press poll, will play Florida State, Clemson and Houston this year.

Jackson has always had the tools to become this player, as anyone who has watched social media knows. The arm strength to throw a ball nearly the entire length of the field. The accuracy to make a full-court basketball shot. And the speed. Supposedly there's video somewhere of him in a footrace against Chicago Bulls guard Rajon Rondo, who was on the Louisville campus for a basketball camp. He and Jackson accidentally ran into each other and somehow decided to race. 

Who won? "Lamar," Swain says. "Made him look stupid."

Those are just the tools. The superstars are made at six in the morning in the film room.

With hash browns.


Greg Couch covers college football for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter at @gregcouch.