By Sam Draut–
Before the 2015 season started, coach Bobby Petrino and the Louisville football team had an ongoing four-man quarterback competition to see who was best suited for commanding the offense through the 12-game schedule.
As the calendar turns to 2016, the only player without any college experience before the competition began now commands the Louisville offense, along with a growing national reputation.
Lamar Jackson may have been the forgotten member of the Cardinals quarterback battle that once included Reggie Bonnafon, Will Gardner, Kyle Bolin and Tyler Ferguson before the start of fall camp, but the quarterback from Boynton Beach, FL. put together a freshman campaign that will be remembered for quite awhile.
Jackson passed for 1840 yards and 12 touchdowns while rushing for 960 yards and 11 touchdowns, adding an explosive playmaking ability that the Louisville offense desperately needed.
But, what was Jackson’s path to becoming named a Freshman All-American by College Football News?
Because the old saying “a picture is worth a thousand words” sometimes holds true, The Louisville Cardinal follows the storyline of Jackson’s freshman year from his own personal narrative, his Instagram account new_era8.
Rated a 4-star and 17th best dual-threat quarterback nationally by Rivals, Jackson’s talent and athleticism oozed out of his highlight tapes. In one video he posted, Jackson evades tacklers as he sprints to the pylon, but then Jackson stops just short of the goal-line as a defender flies by him, before stepping into the end zone. The elusive play spread around the Louisville fan base and picked up some national notoriety.
Jackson committed to U of L on Aug. 30, 2014, but with five months before national signing day, Petrino and staff had to battle the arduous process of holding onto the highly touted quarterback until Feb. 4. The final days were not without drama as Jackson took an official visit to Florida the weekend before national signing day. But U of L was able to hold off the SEC power’s late push and Jackson announced he would stick with the Cardinals, sending in his letter of intent to U of L on the first Wednesday of February.
Unlike Teddy Bridgewater, Jackson did not arrive on campus a semester early to participate in winter workouts and spring practices. Similar to a majority of the Cardinal’s freshman class, Jackson arrived in June to begin to acclimate himself with the college lifestyle. It didn’t take long for Jackson to settle in to the college campus more than 1,000 miles away from his home. On Jun. 15, Jackson and a few other football players saw NBA star Rajon Rondo outside of Cardinal Towne. The local product from Eastern High School was asked by Jackson to race. The quarterback outran the NBA Champion and posted a video of the foot race.
Considered a long shot in the quarterback competition, Jackson showed off his speed and arm strength in the open practices in August. Fans, players and coaches alike were wowed by his athleticism and natural ability. But, Jackson was still learning the nuances of being a college quarterback and played the least reps of the four quarterbacks. Petrino and offensive coordinator Garrick McGee spoke highly of Jackson, but the two coaches also said the freshman needed to improve his footwork, technique and knowledge of the position.
Bonnafon trotted out with the first-team in U of L’s season opener against Auburn, ending the quarterback competition for a few moments. On Louisville’s first play from scrimmage, Jackson lineup as an halfback and received a direct snap, and veered to the right. He threw the ball downfield into triple coverage, and Auburn safety Tray Matthews intercepted the pass. The turnover led to an Auburn touchdown five plays later and Louisville ended up falling behind 17-0 in the first half.
Jackson replaced Bonnafon in the second quarter, but didn’t get going until the second half with Louisville trailing 24-0. Running the read-option with Brandon Radcliff, Jackson and U of L started to cut into the lead. Radcliff’s two-yard touchdown with 2:59 left closed the deficit to 31-24, but U of L couldn’t recover the ensuing onside kick and Auburn bled out the clock. After his collegiate career started as poorly as possible, Jackson led four scoring drives and sparked a comeback that fell just short. He rushed for 106 yards on 16 carries and scored a touchdown while completing nine of 20 passes for 100 yards.
After a strong second half performance against Auburn, Jackson was named the starting quarterback for U of L’s home opener against Houston a week later. The Cougars were able to contain Jackson on the ground, limiting him to 16 yards on 12 carries. He completed 17 of 27 passes for 168 yards and a touchdown, but two interceptions and a costly fumble led Petrino to replacing Jackson with Kyle Bolin. The sophomore quarterback engineered two touchdown drives in the fourth quarter, but U of L fell to Houston 34-31. Bolin remained the starting quarterback the next week against Clemson, but Jackson appeared in a few designed packages in the second half. Facing an 0-3 start for the first time in his career, Petrino named Jackson the starting quarterback against Samford.
U of L coasted to a 45-3 win against Samford in Jackson’s second career start. He rushed for 184 yards on 18 carries and scored two touchdowns while completing 15 of 22 passes for 212 yards and a touchdown. Bonnafon and Jackson played in the backfield together, receiving the self-proclaimed moniker “Flash&Dash.”
Playing at times in a torrential down pour, Jackson guided U of L to a 20-13 win over NC State in Raleigh, NC. The freshman started the scoring with a 68-yard touchdown run late in the first quarter to give U of L a 7-0 lead. In the second quarter, Jackson directed a 93-yard drive that was capped off by a 20-yard touchdown pass to fellow freshman Devante Peete. Jackson finished with 121 rushing yards and 103 passing yards.
After a bye-week where Petrino and McGee said Jackson worked on his downfield passing, the quarterback threw for a season high 307 yards and three touchdowns in a 41-21 loss against Florida State. The following week in rainy conditions against Boston College at Papa John’s Cardinal Stadium, Jackson completed 15 of 25 passes for 230 yards, but also threw two interceptions and U of L won 17-14. Jackson’s final start in the regular season came against Wake Forest, where he completed 19 of 26 passes for 207 yards and two touchdowns. The U of L victory moved the Cardinals to .500 for the first time and may have been the freshman’s best passing performance of the year. Jackson’s QB efficiency was 165.34, his highest of the season.
With Jackson dealing with an ankle sprain and shoulder injury from the fourth quarter of the Wake Forest game, Petrino elected to start Bolin the final four games of the regular season. Jackson did not play against Syracuse, but did see the field for a few designed packages against Virginia. In U of L’s final ACC game against Pitt, the Cardinals fell behind the Panthers 42-17 with 35 seconds left before halftime. Petrino replaced Bolin with Jackson, and the freshman led a quick two-play, 75-yard drive in 32 seconds to cut into the deficit. He led two more scoring drives in the second half to trim the Pitt lead to one possession, but eight points was as close as U of L would get.
Despite bringing U of L back into the game against Pitt the previous week, Petrino started Bolin for the annual in-state rivalry matchup versus Kentucky. The first seven minutes of the first quarter couldn’t have gone worse for U of L as the Cardinals fell behind 21-0. Bolin threw two interceptions, one being returned 82-yards for a touchdown. But after comeback attempts against Auburn and Pitt had fallen short, Jackson finally closed the deal. Executing the read-option to perfection and completing a few key passes, Jackson led the energized Cardinal offense in the second half. U of L went on a 31-0 run in the second half and defeated Kentucky 38-24. Jackson rushed for 186 yards and two touchdowns while passing for 130 yards and a score. For his performance against Kentucky, Jackson earned ACC Rookie of the Week honors and became the first FBS quarterback to record multiple games with 150 yards rushing in the 2015 season.
If Jackson’s buzz grew around the local area after the electric performance against Kentucky, the freshman’s abilities spread nationally in the Music City Bowl against Texas A&M. Jackson rushed for 226 yards and two touchdowns on 22 carries while passing for 227 yards and two scores without any turnovers. Late in the first quarter, Jackson scored a touchdown on a 61-yard run, burning through Aggie defenders into the end zone.
Jackson’s 11 rushing touchdowns set a new single season school record for a quarterback while his 960 rushing yards is now the career high for Cardinal quarterbacks.
Finishing the year on a high note, Jackson can head into his first offseason as a Cardinal with momentum and mounting national recognition.
He will continue to develop as a passer while also working to understand the intracasies of the quarterback position, but for now, there remains so much untold potential and promise in the story of Lamar Jackson.