It’s Early, but Louisville’s Jackson Could Grow into a Heisman Winner-and NFL Talent

Boynton Beach QB Lamar Jackson at the 2014 FACA North-South All-Star Game. (CHRIS HAYS / ORLANDO SENTINEL)

The Louisville Cardinals have taken the college football world by storm with the help of a polarizing coach and uber-talented quarterback. Sophomore Lamar Jackson isn’t draft eligible, but he and head coach Bobby Petrino’s offense are a perfect marriage-Petrino was the same guy the Atlanta Falcons brought in to elevate the play of Michael Vick.

Jackson capped a freshman campaign in which he played in 12 games (eight starts) by tallying 227 yards and two touchdowns through the air and another 226 and two on the ground against Texas A&M in the Music City Bowl. Since, he’s gashed his first three opponents by throwing for 913 yards and eight touchdowns and rushing for another 464 and 10 with an eight touchdown opener and recent domination of the number two-ranked Seminoles (362 total yards, five scores).

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The wildly athletic passer started against Florida State last year as well, but there’s a significant difference in the confidence Jackson has throwing the ball. Both videos shed light on key aspects of Jackson’s game that will translate well to the next level. The first is their first play from scrimmage in which he takes a three-step drop before hitching up and resetting into interior pressure that is getting obliterated. Doing so allows him to deliver the ball to maintain the integrity of the play, and Jackson looks as comfortable as anyone in the pocket.

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Following that is his performance this past week where he does a multitude of positive things. As he rolls out, he notices his backside drag route entering a wide open lane-highlighting his understanding of throwing lanes-before he connects his feet with his eyes by snapping into a sound base and delivering a quick strike to a spot that allows his receiver to run after the catch, thus generating offense; you would like to see him bring the thrown down a tad to create a more natural spot, but it was efficient nonetheless.

Petrino’s offense is ideal for an athlete like Jackson where he can utilize RPOs (run-pass options) and run zone read out of multiple looks. He will put multiple backs in the backfield to create personnel formations that will challenge the defense and force them to cover all areas of the field with a passing game with multiple high-low reads and coverage-beaters.

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This was one of my favorite plays from Jackson and one of the weekend’s least-unheralded-but-most-impressive by a quarterback. Facing a third-and-five, the ‘Noles do a great job of disguising a Cover 1 blitz that completely fractures their structure up front and gives two defenders a free release. Jackson recognizes this pre-snap by understanding that his tight end is going to release vertically into two man defenders with a single-high safety with leverage to the left (although it’s not visible in the video). The design of the pass concept is to get the playside receivers stacked in an attempt to get the free-released receiver to stem vertically to occupy the nickel back, thus creating a one-on-one matchup for the number one receiver to execute his stick route past the first down marker.

Because FSU was so efficient in executing their blitz, Jackson has to come off his first read and find his check down in roughly two seconds. For starters, this points to his cerebral approach and mental processing that allows him to quickly go through his progression and get the ball out on time. This also supports his aforementioned ability to hang in the face of pressure: almost all quarterbacks his age or younger would see this breakdown and panic by dropping their eyes and turning left. He follows that up quickly snapping into an effective base, pointing his shoulders and angling his arm to zip the ball into a good spot to pick up a first down and then some.

Being a smart quarterback is unquestionably more vital than anything you can do physically; it’s going to be a short ride if you don’t know where to go with the ball. Here, the running back is going to release into a wheel route to create an empty set the Cardinals love as well. The backside receiver is going to release into a drag route while the front side tight end releases into a dig to create a drive concept, a high-low read of the underneath defender that happens to be the middle linebacker. Jackson takes a three-step that remains in rhythm the concept before hitching up and resetting as he senses backside pressure, ultimately getting rid of the ball on time. He simultaneously recognizes the linebacker’s late close on the drag, opening up a window to the dig behind that, highlighting his cerebral approach once again.

As has been the theme for Jackson the past 15 games, he needs to improve his ability to manipulate his throws with touch more consistently. That window won’t be nearly as big at the next level, and could lead his pass-catcher susceptible to big hits.

This an example of that issue. First and foremost, Jackson is late on a perfectly-executed concept that features the inside slot man on a takeoff to occupy the free safety while the slot receiver runs a corner behind an in route that occupies the man corner. He elects to step up after his hitch despite the fact he has plenty of room in the pocket for a clean release; from there, he puts too much juice on the ball and not the requisite touch.

Jackson’s performance against Syracuse this year was entertaining, but it was frustrating to watch him leave offense on the field, particularly when challenging the deep areas. If you haven’t noticed by now, Jackson has an explosive lower-half that he involves on every throw and allows him to put the necessary velocity on his throws. He does so here, but he begins this throw by staring down his slot man on a throw that next-level safeties are going to intercept-this safety didn’t because he started roughly 10 yards away and chose to break after the ball was thrown.

Jackson also begins with a narrow base that eventually leads to a narrow step, something that should be eliminated as soon as possible. A wider base creates a longer step, thus allowing him to really get his hips and core involved to effevtively drive the ball. In turn, this allows the receiver to catch the ball sooner and beat that safety in a footrace for six.

Standing 6-foot-3, 205 pounds, Jackson will certainly have to add weight to his frame even though his coach at the next level won’t have him involved as much in the run game. To further build on that point, Jackson has avoided taking big hits mainly because of his speed and elusiveness that allows him to evade defenders while also showing the physicality to finish through contact. He simply won’t be able to so with the same frequency in the NFL.

Having shown serious signs of progression from his freshman year, Jackson appears improving-by NFL quarterback standards-every week, so talk of him transitioning to receiver at the next level this early is ridiculous. After destroying a National Championship favorite, the Cardinals travel to Clemson and Houston in October and November respectively as two games that will determine the remainder of their season. While it’s too early to anoint Jackson the Heisman, even splitting those two games should earn them an ACC Championship appearance and Jackson a trip to New York.

After Saturday’s perfromance, Louisville is clearly the favorite to run the ACC table and enter the postseason a perfect 12-0.




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