September dawned with the American ritual of chatter about an award still three months and hundreds of games away, and the country seemed to suffer from a surfeit of sturdy Heisman Trophy “candidates.”
Among LSU running back Leonard Fournette, Stanford running back Christian McCaffrey, Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson, Florida State running back Dalvin Cook, Ohio State quarterback J.T. Barrett and Oklahoma quarterback Baker Mayfield, they all seemed to suffer from playing in the same season and perhaps erred in not being born at a different time.
Beyond even that, what if the country suddenly up and decided defense is important and named a defender such as Michigan’s Jabrill Peppers or Texas A&M’s much-fancied Myles Garrett?
Yet somehow, even with that populous crowd, here comes 19-year-old Lamar Jackson, Louisville sophomore quarterback and dazzler. By various accounts, he has that coveted combination of outrageous talent and the willingness to make it count with toil and study. In two games, he has rushed for 318 yards and six touchdowns and passed for 697 yards and seven scores. For those connoisseurs of early-season statistics, he has a celestial quarterback rating of 188.14 and ranks in the nation’s top 10 in both passing and rushing yardage.
That would suggest he could bury the autumn in gaudy numerals but for the fact the numerals have come against Charlotte and Syracuse, teams that 10th-ranked Louisville has outscored 132-42. If the numbers even get close to persisting against Louisville’s visitor Saturday afternoon, No. 2 Florida State, then it will be, as the saying goes, on.
“He’s eager,” said Rick Swain, the retired Florida high school coach of 41 seasons who coached Jackson at Boynton Beach High in Palm Beach County. “Everybody looks at him as what you call a ‘dual threat.’ I’m kind of like, ‘No, Deshaun Watson.’ Deshaun is a pro quarterback. Lamar Jackson is a pro quarterback. It’s not a flash-in-the-pan thing. Barring injury, he’ll play in the NFL, and he’ll be very, very effective. Both Deshaun and Lamar are tremendous passers with accuracy. There’s lots of guys who can heave the ball, but it’s the accuracy.”
Already there’s an old story getting older by the day and threatening to get antiquated across the years. Jackson arrived at Boynton Beach High, and the first time Swain and staff saw him at 15, they knew they had something. Swain had coached NFL players such as Lamar Thomas, Michael Peterson, Adrian Peterson (not the Minnesota running back) and Doug Johnson, plus, in basketball, an NBA-bound Vernon Maxwell.
Jackson was the best athlete.
“He was certainly faster than anyone I’d ever coached,” Swain said by telephone from Florida, soon adding, “Lamar just has that uncanny ability of sticking his foot in the ground and not losing any momentum.” Many football players, Swain explained, will cut in a “jitterbug” manner. “His cuts aren’t like that. His cuts are defined. . . . We’d look at each other in practice sometimes and say, ‘That didn’t really just happen, did it?’ ”
As for Jackson making the Florida-to-Louisville trek blazed by NFL-bound Miamian Teddy Bridgewater, the first name on Swain’s athlete list up there proved pivotal. Lamar Thomas, the former University of Miami, Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Miami Dolphins wide receiver, coached receivers at Louisville. Thomas, of course, knew Swain. Soon, Thomas knew Jackson, and it didn’t hurt that Jackson knew of Louisville Coach Bobby Petrino’s pro-style offense. In August 2014, Jackson chose Louisville. In February 2015, Jackson rebuffed Florida’s wooing, stuck with Louisville and earned Swain some deranged emails from Florida fanatics.
In September 2015, Jackson opened in Atlanta against Auburn and played credibly for somebody born in 1997, rushing for 106 yards and a touchdown, throwing for 100 yards on 9-for-20 passing with one interception. From there, he had a sound first year — Louisville started off 0-3 and finished 8-5 — but not one that shouted over all the country’s other bright lights. By the Music City Bowl against Texas A&M, when he rushed for 226 yards and two touchdowns, Petrino said of Jackson: “He was up there for extra hours for himself, in watching video, taking notes, trying to learn what it takes to be a quarterback. He improved tremendously on his footwork and his accuracy throwing the ball.”
By the ACC media kickoff in the summer, Louisville brought him along as the face of the program, and Jackson said, “I’ve been growing a lot,” and, “I think you guys are going to see a whole lot of everything from me.” He said of his freshman season, “I went out there with a smile, not rage that I had to show everyone.”
Most affectingly, he said of his role as a face of a program: “How am I doing?”
Petrino had spent the spring shutting off Jackson’s running game to focus on throwing from the pocket. Come September, he has hit 37 of 62 passes, and Swain has almost attempted to jump through his TV when receivers have not rewarded Jackson’s accuracy. Of Jackson’s nature, Swain said: “He could be slightly injured; it didn’t matter. He was just there to outwork anybody and lead by example. He didn’t take days off. He always had a smile on his face. That’s the craziest thing. I’m not smiling every day, but . . . he doesn’t think there are any boundaries.”
Smiles aside, if there prove to be no boundaries Saturday, this will have gotten serious.