Louisville fans have discussed Lamar Jackson so much since the start of the 2015 football season that itâ€™s easy to forget that 12 months ago, he was still a high school student in Boynton Beach, Florida. A year later, heâ€™s UofLâ€™s unquestioned starting quarterback, one of the most exciting returning players in college football and a dark horse candidate to win the Heisman Trophy.
That last attribute isnâ€™t just the product of a Cardinal fan drunk with offseason delirium. Jackson is on the Heisman Trophy big board in Las Vegas, and heâ€™s been labeled as a sleeperÂ candidate for the most vaunted individual award in college sports by ESPN, CBS, Yahoo and others this offseason.
The Lamar hype train only picked up steam after last weekâ€™s spring game, in which the rising sophomore completed 24 of 29 passes for 519 yards with eight touchdowns and no interceptions. He also accumulated those numbers despite playing just one series in the second half.
â€œWhat I liked was his decision-making,â€ Louisville Head Coach Bobby Petrino said about his signal callerâ€™s performance. â€œI usually stay on the field during spring games, but I tried to stay off the field so heâ€™d have to make all the decisions on his own, and he did. Weâ€™re already a better passing team right now than we were at any point last season.â€
Jacksonâ€™s video game numbers come with the obvious caveat that they were produced in a glorified scrimmage where there was no pass rush and where the first team Louisville offense was going up against was an obviously over-matched second team defense. Obviously, the numbers donâ€™t mean as much as any of the ones heâ€™ll put up in actual games this fall, or, perhaps, even as much as the ones he put up during a scrimmage against his first team defense earlier in the week.
Having said that, Jacksonâ€™s spring game performance isnâ€™t completely devoid of significance.
A season ago, Louisville fans saw a true freshman quarterback playing almost entirely on instinct alone. He had a general grasp of his head coachâ€™s convoluted offense, but when it came to throwing the ball, it seemed like more times than not, option one was his primary receiver, and then, option two was tucking the ball and running with it. That worked well enough at times for a youthful offense, but there needed to be some evolving from the quarterback this offseason in order for the Cardinal offense to get fully back to where it expects to be in the coming years. It certainly appears as if Jackson has taken at least the first few large steps in that process.
Jackson wasnâ€™t perfect in the spring game, but he was awfully close. Not only did he make the highlight throw on more than one occasion but he also showed a newfound ability to go through his progressions and make the short, accurate throw to pick up a small chunk of yards when his primary read wasnâ€™t open. That may seem like a small thing, but it wonâ€™t be once the Cards are lining up against the likes of Clemson and Florida State in September and October.
The other thing that Jacksonâ€™s gaudy spring game accomplished was further capture the attention of the college football world, a process that began last December.
It was then that the Cardinals became the first team in 2015 to topple an SEC West opponent in a bowl game, a feat they accomplished in front of 5.4 million television viewers, making the Music City Bowl one of the most-watched sporting events of the holiday season. Those 5.4 million pairs of eyes watched Lamar Jackson establish himself as not just the future of Louisville football but a breakout national star in 2016.
On his way to carrying UofL to a 27-21 win over the Aggies, Jackson became just the third quarterback in college football history to throw and run for more than 200 yards in a bowl game. The other two? Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel and Heisman Trophy runner-up Vince Young.
That performance was essentially Jacksonâ€™s introduction to college footballâ€™s national conversation, a conversation that now includes the fact that he threw for almost 500 yards in the first half of his spring game. It might not be the biggest deal in the world, but itâ€™s also more than nothing.
Buzz is a big deal in college football, and thanks to Lamar Jackson, people are buzzing about Louisville again.
Photo by DAMON ATHERTON