By Conner Farrell, Jeff Milby, Matt Bradshaw & Dalton Ray
Junior quarterback Lamar Jackson is a program-changing, once-in-a-decade player.
Eligible for the 2018 NFL Draft, Jackson may not return for his senior season. If that’s the case, let’s take a look back.
“It’s Jackson … (He) throws it deep into double coverage and it is intercepted,” CBS’ Verne Lunquist said on the first play in the 2015 Chick-fil-A Kickoff game against No. 6 Auburn.
Little did fans know, the wiry 6-foot-3 190 lbs. kid from Pompano Beach, Florida would go on to rewrite school and national records.
The Cards lost to Auburn 31-24, but Jackson finished with his first of many 100-yard-plus passing and rushing yard game.
Jackson’s first start came against Samford, accounting for 396 total yards and three touchdowns.
Edging NC State, Jackson busted a 68-yard touchdown run in the first quarter and followed it with a 20-yard touchdown pass.
Traveling to No. 11 Florida State the following week, Jackson threw three touchdown passes in the 20-point loss.
Not deterred by the 2-4 record, Jackson led U of L to victories against Boston College and Wake Forest.
Jackson spent time on the bench in the next two games.
The apex of Jackson’s up-and-down freshman season arrived when Louisville traveled to Lexington, Kentucky.
Jackson entered the game down 21 points.
Led by the true freshman, Louisville scored 31 unanswered points.
Behind Jackson’s 316 total yards and three touchdowns, Louisville canned Kentucky bowl game hopes.
In the Music City Bowl, Louisville faced Texas A&M. Jackson ran through the 22nd-ranked defense. His third score was a memorable 61-yard run, coined by Jackson’s patented breakneck speed.
In the bowl win, Jackson joined Vince Young and Johnny Manziel being one of three players to ever rush and pass for 200 plus yards in a bowl game.
In 12 games, Jackson finished with 1,840 passing yards and 960 rushing yards with 24 total touchdowns.
Jackson lifted the 2016 Heisman Trophy on Dec. 10 in New York City, but he won it on a Friday night in September in Syracuse.
It happened in the Carrier Dome on a first-and-goal from the 10-yard line.
Jackson faked a hand-off and began with the ball towards the end-zone around his left tackle. Gliding like a gazelle, Jackson approached the six-yard line. Syracuse’s Cordell Hudson looked poised to make the stop.
Like an attacking lion, Hudson opened his arms and prepared to launch into Jackson — only Jackson wasn’t there. He was in the air, directly over Hudson’s head. As Hudson hit the ground and turned back to see where his prey had gone, Jackson landed on his feet, with the balance of a world-class gymnast and tip-toed over the goal-line to score.
There was an audible gasp from the crowd.
This was Jackson’s Heisman moment.
The next week, Jackson accounted for five touchdowns in the mauling of No. 2 Florida State, the Heisman race was all but over. Jackson was featured on the cover of Sports Illustrated and Louisville looked destined for unprecedented success.
Despite losses in his final two games to close the regular season, Jackson was a run-away Heisman winner over Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson.
Jackson finsihed with over 5,100 total yards and 51 touchdowns. He gained more that 500 total yards in eight games. He set the single-season school record for rushing yards and the single-season ACC record for rushing yards and touchdowns by a quarterback. His 610 total yards against Syracuse was an ACC single-game record.
At 19, Jackson is the youngest player ever to win the Heisman.
After nearly disbanding in the 1980’s, Louisville had now moved into an elite club of college football: Producing a Heisman winner.
As for that night in New York, Jackson was asked about his “Heisman moment.” His emblematic response summed up his year.
“Each and every game should be a Heisman moment,” Jackson said.
Jackson walked into 2017 aiming to establish himself as a passer.
Pushing 215 lbs., Jackson improved his completion percentage (56 percent to 60 percent), increased his quarterback rating (148.8 to 151.5) and lowered his interceptions (nine to six).
In the first two games Jackson threw for 771 yards and five touchdowns on 65 completion percentage.
Jackson’s pocket presence and awareness looked remodeled.
Halfway through the year, despite the 3-3 record, Jackson still averaged 416 total yards with 19 touchdowns.
The Cardinals hadn’t yet hit rock bottom as they fell to Boston College and Wake Forest.
In the final stretch of the season, Jackson finally started getting help from his offense and defense.
U of L closed the final six games with four wins. In the final six games, Jackson averaged 405 total yards and 21 touchdowns.
Even through the toil of 2017, Jackson gleamed through dusk.
While he isn’t the Heisman favorite, Jackson’s numbers are on par with his sophomore campaign.
Let’s take a look at the numbers from 2016: 5,114 total yards, 51 touchdowns and 17 turnovers.
Now 2017 (through 12 games): 4,932 total yards, 42 touchdowns and nine turnovers.
Through all the accomplishment, some have tried to forget the 2016 Heisman winner. Leaving Jackson off the Davey O’Brien Award Award list is one example of how his greatness has become accustomed.
Jackson is the first player in NCAA history to pass for 3,000 yards and rush for 1,000 yards in back-to-back seasons.
Whether Jackson plans to enter the NFL draft or not, Louisville — and the nation — should count themselves lucky to witness him.
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Photo by Nancy Hanner / The Louisville Cardinal