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The Meteoric Rise of Sudden Heisman Front-Runner Lamar Jackson

Greg CouchNational ColumnistSeptember 18, 2016

LOUISVILLE, KY - SEPTEMBER 17:  Lamar Jackson #8 of the Louisville Cardinals celebrates with teammates after the 63-20 win over the Florida State Seminoles  at Papa John's Cardinal Stadium on September 17, 2016 in Louisville, Kentucky.  (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)
Andy Lyons/Getty Images

LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Just like college football defenders, you probably didn't see Lamar Jackson coming. And if you did, you had no idea he was coming this fast. To watch him play is to see him right in front of a linebacker—then something happens. And just like that, he seems to be two feet to the side of the defender, who is still looking straight ahead. It's as if someone moved a game piece when you weren't looking. So Jackson flies past.

"No one sees the move," Louisville receiver James Quick said. "No one. You see a guy in tackling position to get him and then...I don't know. He'll make you stuck in one position."

Jackson is the sudden superstar. Three weeks ago, most people hadn't heard of him. As of Saturday morning, he was the guy with highlights on ESPN, putting up crazy numbers and scoring against lesser teams.

Now?

He is the star and face of college football. Just like that. The Louisville quarterback ran for four touchdowns and threw for another, leaving Florida State's defenders stuck in one position while he did it. Louisville beat the No. 2 team in the nation, 63-20, with Florida State compelled to kick a field goal with less than two minutes left just to make the score look better. It was the most points the Seminoles had allowed—ever.

So welcome, Lamar Jackson, sudden Heisman Trophy front-runner.

CollegeFootballTalk @CFTalk

Our current Heisman Top Three: 1.) Lamar Jackson 2.) Jackson, Lamar 3.) That Louisville QB

It is not supposed to be like this. Sports stardom is not a lottery ticket, where you're broke yesterday and stinking rich today. Maybe it can work like that with a fluky moment and then you never hear from the sudden "star" again. But this wasn't a moment.

It was an entire game against some NFL-level defenders. In fact, it was three games. Louisville is 3-0 and Jackson, with eight passing touchdowns and 10 rushing, might well be on the best three-game run of any major college quarterback in history.

Eighteen touchdowns. Three games.

"I can't tell you how many times I see guys in position to tackle him," Louisville cornerback Jaire Alexander said, "and then suddenly they're on the ground, and Lamar is running."

Just like that, Jackson is the must-watch player of college football, if you can see him. Just like that, Louisville is in the College Football Playoff picture.

How did we get here so fast?


A few weeks ago in a private moment in the tight ends room at the Louisville football complex, Jackson talked with Bleacher Report about that. How did he get here?

He never had a playbook in high school. Coaches drew up plays and talked them through. In early 2015, after he’d committed to Louisville, coach Bobby Petrino gave Jackson the Cardinals' thick playbook. He said he felt that if Jackson couldn't make it as a quarterback, he could play another position.

Jackson said the playbook looked like it was in a foreign language. He said his mom, holding the book, would meet him after school during his senior year of high school in Florida. Time to get to work.

"I had to know what to read in the playbook," Jackson said, "know why you're calling the plays."

He said the act of studying that book was a skill in and of itself.

"You've just got to make sure you're focused," he said. "You've got to have time to study, but like, maybe 20 to 30 minutes (at one time at the most). You have to keep your mind fresh."

Last year, during his freshman season, Jackson wasn't listed as one of the contenders for the starting job. But Petrino put him in anyway, when the Cardinals were trailing big against Auburn in their first game. Jackson threw an interception on his first play.

Jackson figured he was done, but Petrino put him back in, and the freshman nearly brought the team back. Still, there was a major learning curve ahead. He had come from a no-huddle, hurry-up offense in high school. He went to Louisville partly because of Petrino's reputation of success in developing pro-style quarterbacks.

Jackson said you don't see many of the read-option, no-huddle guys make it in the NFL. And when they do, they don't last long. But Jackson felt he already had the passing skills; he just needed someone to be willing to focus on them instead of just his running.

"I don't want to be read-option," he said. "I want to be either/or (pass or run), not known as doing one thing. I was balanced (in high school). It's just that my run plays were more dynamic."

LOUISVILLE, KY - SEPTEMBER 17:  Lamar Jackson #8 of the Louisville Cardinals  runs for a touchdown against the Florida State Seminoles  at Papa John's Cardinal Stadium on September 17, 2016 in Louisville, Kentucky.  (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)
Andy Lyons/Getty Images

Petrino made Jackson come into the coach's office at 6 a.m. day after day to study film. He had Jackson wearing virtual-reality goggles where he could watch game film from all different angles, stop, rewind, look again and figure out how each player was moving, so he could better see what he should have done.

And then during spring camp this year, every time Jackson couldn't find an open receiver and pulled the ball down to run, Petrino blew the whistle to stop the play and rerun it until the quarterback found the pass. Petrino said he was taking away Jackson's legs.

"His instincts take over," Petrino told Bleacher Report in his office a few weeks ago. "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 on 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."

Petrino said you can see Jackson's confidence grow.

"The one thing I had to be careful about is that he doesn't get mad at himself, down on himself," Petrino said. "You have to be able to put that play behind you and move on to the next play. He didn't want to make a mistake. He didn't want to do things wrong."


Jackson threw an interception Saturday late in the third quarter. How did he respond?

With a 47-yard touchdown run the next time Louisville got the ball. That helped make it 56-10. Florida State defenders were stuck in one position all over the field.

Curtis @Curtos07

47-yard touchdown run from Lamar Jackson. #Louisville https://t.co/uPg7ecsNmB

"After the interception I threw," Jackson said, "I told my team I owed them four touchdowns...I was like, 'I'm determined we have to score right here.' And then the offensive line, there was a huge hole, and I knew I just had to hit it."

After the upset win, Jackson said he would give his offensive line an A-plus for the game and his receivers an A-plus.

"But me?" he said. "Have to be a D. I threw an interception at the goal line. I think it was seven incomplete passes I did. Bad balls..."

He ran for 146 yards and threw for 216 with a total of five touchdowns.

That's far from a D.

Afterward Petrino was already playing mind games. He said after he goes over the film with the team, it won't think it had such a great game. And when a reporter asked him for a rundown on how the game went, he said: "Our defense did an unbelievable job of stopping the run, pressuring the quarterback..."

And this: "Our special teams made some really big plays—Jaire Alexander—he got those runs because we blocked well..."

LOUISVILLE, KY - SEPTEMBER 17:  Bobby Petrino the head coach of the Louisville Cardinals celebrates  after the 63-20 win over the Florida State Seminoles  at Papa John's Cardinal Stadium on September 17, 2016 in Louisville, Kentucky.  (Photo by Andy Lyons
Andy Lyons/Getty Images

And this: "Offensively, I felt good. I felt like we were consistent. I felt like our offensive line did a good job of removing them from the line of scrimmage, and everybody that had an opportunity made plays. So I'm just happy that it was a great team win."

Hello?

No mention of the guy with five touchdowns?

"I'm just proud of how he prepared for the game," Petrino said. "How he was able to stay calm. He's got tremendous confidence. He's a great competitor and he really prepared for the game. Obviously, you get nervous because he's so young and you got all these things going around—and more interviews than he should have to do. But we do that anyway."

Actually, Jackson did look a little nervous at first, missing a few wide-open receivers. He also was untackleable. On the first drive of the game, when Florida State needed to make a statement and let Jackson know he wasn't messing around with bottom-feeders, he took the team 75 yards on six plays and capped it with a two-yard TD run.

Two drives later, it was six plays, 68 yards. Louisville led 14-0 late in the first quarter, and Florida State was already getting the picture.

"We just didn't communicate like we should—like we did throughout the week," Florida State linebacker Jacob Pugh said. "And then we got out on the field and everything just went blank."

Jackson does that to you.


So how did Jackson get here? Sudden results come from daily 6 a.m. film-study sessions.

He said former Louisville star Teddy Bridgewater, now with the Minnesota Vikings, has been in touch with him all week: "He's really cool," Jackson said. Michael Vick wrote him a note, and people are comparing Jackson to him. He said he'd like to ask Vick, his hero, "what did he see when he was out there?"

Vick, in turn, had high praise for Jackson after the game:

Michael Vick @MichaelVick

Lamar Jackson 5x better than what I was at V-Tech....Enough said!! #future

And now, following his statement performance with the nation watching, Jackson will be the focus of all the Heisman talk. But he's brushing it aside, for now.

"I try not to pay attention to that," he said. "I try to keep that out of my mind. I'm not the kind to get hyped like I said before. I'm just chill."

Meanwhile, he admitted the game looks slower to him now, which, of course, makes him look faster to everyone else. Several Louisville players said that to be a power in the ACC, you have to beat Florida State and Clemson.

They feel they arrived Saturday.

It wasn't all as sudden as it looked. Things didn't really turn in one day. It wasn't like winning the lottery.

Though for Petrino, maybe it was.

     

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

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