Weapon of Mass Production
It all happened so fast, like a Lamar Jackson burst through a bewildered defense.
Jackson was not an unknown commodity in 2015, his first season removed from Boynton Beach (Fla.) High School. As a true freshman, the wiry teen with sprinter speed flashed hints of his potential, and he finished his debut by being named the MVP of the Music City Bowl. But this good? This fast? It defied the usual year-over-year progression made by such a young athlete playing such a high-profile position.
Like Teddy Bridgewater before him, Jackson used the ball fields and the playgrounds of the Sunshine State to attract interest from a spate of college programs. And like Bridgewater, he elected to matriculate at Louisville. Plenty of schools were intrigued by Jackson’s explosive skill set, including the instate Gators. But while others were noncommittal regarding position, the Cards assured Jackson he’d play quarterback. Not only quarterback, but also Bobby Petrino’s quarterback.
Petrino, a quarterback during his own playing days, has had a long and consistent history of developing potent offenses that maximize a passer’s potential. Petrino’s track record was appealing to Jackson. However, the staff’s ability to gain the confidence of Felicia Jones, Jackson’s mom, was far more important than X’s and O’s or offensive wrinkles.
Jones is the most important person in Jackson’s life. Period. She’s a strong, devoted and loving woman, a mama bear when it comes to the well-being of her son. Jones has worn many hats over the years, particularly after Jackson’s father died tragically at the age of 31. She was instrumental in steering her son along each of life’s pathways, never seeking publicity or personal gain. It was always all about Lamar.
And when Jackson needed a little extra coaching or help with the fundamentals, mom would strap on pads and put her hand in the dirt, selflessly fulfilling a role that has historically been handled by a father.
Petrino and the Cards lived up to their promise, starting Jackson eight times in 2015 so that he could learn on the job and adapt to the speed of the college game. There were the predictable ebbs and flows associated with an inexperienced quarterback. However, by the time of the aforementioned Music City Bowl, the light was beginning to flicker on for Jackson, who torched Texas A&M for 226 yards rushing, 227 yards passing and four total scores. It would go down in history as the spark that ignited the greatest season in Louisville football history.
Jackson received a fair amount of love and attaboys during the offseason that preceded the 2016 campaign. Understandable considering his upside. And yet, even his most optimistic supporters couldn’t forecast what was on the horizon.
The sophomore wasted nary a minute to prove that a new year would mean a new Jackson. He opened the season by accounting for eight touchdowns … in the opening half. But, hey, that was versus Charlotte, non-believers opined, a program that resumed playing competitive football when Jackson was a high school junior. A week later, the dual-threat schooled Syracuse on national TV, highlighted by a hurdle of Orange CB Cordell Hudson that would become one of the hallmark images of the entire 2016 season. It was on the following Saturday, with one of the country’s trademark programs in town, that the last remaining trace of Jackson’s anonymity evaporated.
If Jackson was more than a product of a soft opening slate, he’d be every bit as prolific against Florida State, a school that perennially contends for titles and populates its roster with blue-chip talent. Surely, this would be where the precocious sophomore would be taught a thing or two about respecting the natural order of things in the ACC. Except, that warm afternoon at Papa John’s Stadium didn’t follow the script, at least in terms of the way Jimbo Fisher and the Noles had penned it in their minds.
Louisville didn’t just shake up the ACC Atlantic Division race on Sept. 17. It took a sledgehammer to it. And Jackson didn’t just hold his own against one of the top defenses he’d face all year. He embarrassed it, rushing for 146 yards and four touchdowns in a 63-20 evisceration of the nation’s second-ranked team. From that point forward, Jackson’s life would never again be the same.
With a newfound target on his chest, Jackson did what he’d always done—he made things happen with his happy feet and his live arm. Anything less than continual improvement for this self-proclaimed perfectionist would be wholly unacceptable. The grade Jackson gave himself following the Florida State rout? A D. Don’t be fooled by the infectious, ear-to-ear smile. Oh, he’s a terrific and engaging kid, but beneath the surface boils the burning desire to develop into the very best quarterback he can be.
Jackson spent the balance of the 2016 season strafing opposing defenses as if he was tapping into his inner-RG3. Or better yet, a right-handed Michael Vick, a quarterback Jackson idolized as a youth and Petrino nearly inherited with the Atlanta Falcons in 2007. The coachable Jackson became more confident as the season unfolded, striking enough fear in defenses with his legs to allow his passing skills to continue blooming. Yeah, the ball has always jumped out of his hand, but now he was distributing with more touch, making better decisions and trusting his reads in the pocket.
When the dust settled on the 2016 season, Jackson had rewritten a multitude of record books, including that of his school and his conference. He became the first player in FBS history to pass for more than 3,500 yards and rush for more than 1,500 yards in the same year. Jackson joined Auburn’s Cam Newton and Florida’s Tim Tebow as the only quarterbacks to ever rush for 20 scores and throw 30 touchdown passes in a season. And the 6-3, 205-pound wunderkind bloomed in arguably the toughest league of the year, and behind an O-line that allowed more sacks than all but a pair of FBS programs.
For his on-field wizardry and penchant for delivering in the clutch, Jackson is the 80th recipient of the Maxwell Award. He’s also the youngest student-athlete to ever receive the honor, awful news for college defenses that’ll face him in the next year or two. Sure, Jackson dazzled this past fall, capturing the nation’s imagination as the new face of the sport. But he’s still only a kid. A sensational kid, with uncommon physical gifts and the dogged determination to make certain that 2016 is only the beginning of a career littered with jaw-dropping moments.
Winner: The Maxwell Award – 2016 University of Louisville