Three games into the season, Louisville quarterback Lamar Jackson has — in much the same way Leonard Fournette did a year ago — garnered the attention of the country. Less than a month into the season, the sophomore has thrown eight touchdowns (tied for 16th nationally) and for 913 yards (No. 15), accounted for a nation-leading 10 rushing touchdowns and rushed for 464 yards (No. 2). Considering he essentially didn’t play three of Louisville’s first eight quarters this season because his team was laughably in control (the Cardinals outscored Charlotte and Syracuse, 134-42), the numbers are considerably more extraordinary.
Here’s some historical context: Jackson is the only player over the last 16 years to amass 10 rushing touchdowns in the first three games of a season, and is one of just 58 players, a list primarily consisting of running backs, to rush for more than 460 yards. If Jackson was a team, his 18 touchdowns this season would be tied for eighth in scoring, ahead of 114 Division-I programs.
The loftiest comparison for a dual-threat quarterback with track-type speed is Michael Vick, who led Virginia Tech to a national championship game and then played 14 years in the NFL, a stretch in which he was named to four Pro Bowls and revolutionized his position. Many have drawn the same comparison — Vince Young and Denard Robinson, in just the past decade — but none have satisfied it quite like Jackson. He has every box checked: speed, agility, cannon-like arm, inherent big-play ability. So much so even Vick himself is impressed.
He isn’t wrong: Jackson is on pace to rush for 40 touchdowns, Vick amassed nine in 1999 and eight in 2000. Jackson started eight games last season and still finished fifth among FBS quarterbacks in rushing.
Eight times over the past two seasons, Jackson has rushed and passed for more than 100 yards. Only 15 players have more this century, and Jackson has played less than a single season as a starter. Vick, for example, achieved those marks three times in his collegiate career. As of Monday, Jackson’s 9.5 yards-per-carry clip led the nation among players with at least 30 carries, and while that figure is certainly expected to regress to the mean, he has plenty of room between that number and the 5.9 Vick averaged in his best season. Already, Jackson is just 153 rushing yards shy of Vick’s best single season.
It’s difficult to quantify arm strength, and Vick was certainly recognized for his ability to throw a ball a great distance at a great velocity. But Jackson’s throwing power isn’t far off; he can fit balls into keyholes and put touch on longer, more difficult passing attempts. In total, he is five rushing touchdowns and one passing touchdown shy of tying Vick’s career marks.
Looking forward, a primetime matchup looms against third-ranked Clemson on Oct 1 — it’s the only remaining game in which ESPN’s Football Power Index doesn’t give the Cardinals better than a 79 percent likelihood of winning. Then, on No. 17, sixth-ranked Houston hosts Bobby Petrino’s squad. Aside from those two outings — Houston and Clemson rank No. 4 and No. 5, respectively, in defensive efficiency — Louisville faces off against three defenses ranked outside the top 100 and just one inside the top 35.
Phil Steele ranked Louisville’s strength of schedule No. 50 nationally, and No. 65 a season ago, so it isn’t as though the Cardinals’ very-real playoff contention is a result of a lackluster opposition. If nothing else, Jackson has already destroyed Vick’s toughest college foe: Florida State. The Seminoles ranked second in total defense in 2000, the year they beat Vick’s Hokies to claim the national title.
Jackson’s on pace to finish the season with 72 total touchdowns — 32 passing, 40 on the ground — and that doesn’t include a projected conference championship game appearance or a bowl game. Those numbers would break the all-time records for single-season rushing touchdowns (37, set by Barry Sanders in 1988) and total touchdowns (63, set by Colt Brennan in 2006). Those numbers — and his comparisons to Vick — might seem lofty, but Jackson has showed the country that anything is attainable.