Louisville As a freshman last season, quarterback Lamar Jackson’s improvisational skills confounded opponents and thrilled Louisville football fans. But heading into this season, U of L Coach Bobby Petrino wants it known there can be too much of this good thing.
Petrino made that point clear when asked at Louisville’s Media Day about the freedom he gave — and will give — Jackson.
“We don’t really use the term ‘freedom,’” Petrino told reporters. “You know, he gets the freedom to do exactly what we tell him.”
That line got a big laugh. But Petrino wasn’t kidding.
Louisville expects a more controlled, less adventurous Jackson in 2016. Greater knowledge of how to play quarterback should lead to a more prudent approach.
“A year ago at this time, he didn’t really know the play,” Petrino said. “You’d give him a play and he would drop back (the coach’s voice trailed off). Now, you give him a play and he pictures it in his mind. He knows exactly where the receivers are going to be. To me, that’s the No. 1 thing for a quarterback.”
Jackson said he had a sense of the play called last year. But if the play broke down, he was unsure of how to create something out of nothing within the offensive framework.
“I was like, ‘Man, I don’t know what I’m doing,’” he said.
Even at the starting point of development as a college quarterback, Jackson excited Petrino with what he might become. At U of L’s Media Day last year, the mention of Jackson brought noticeable enthusiasm to Petrino’s tone of voice.
By late September of last season, Jackson had settled Louisville’s muddled quarterback situation. For the season, he threw for 1,840 yards and ran for a school record (for a quarterback) 960 yards. In his last two games, he ran for 190 yards at Kentucky and then 226 yards against Texas A&M in the Music City Bowl.
Petrino used the 2016 spring game to reinforce his wish for a less-is-more philosophy about quarterbacks on the run. He told Jackson stay in the pocket no matter what. The coaches wanted to learn — and wanted Jackson to learn — the passes he could and could not throw.
“It didn’t frustrate me at all,” Jackson said. “He wanted to let everyone know I can throw, that I knew my check-downs and my progressions.”
Jackson’s spring game statistics hardly suggested a constrained quarterback: 24 completions in 29 attempts and eight TD passes.
“We’re working hard on him being a passer,” Petrino said. “He’s got to be able to keep his focus going downfield. Go through progressions. Know where the check-down is.
“But he’s got great instincts.”
Much seems to be riding on Jackson successfully blending pocket passing and eye-catching individualism. In its season preview, Lindy’s said of Louisville’s outlook, “Everything is built around Jackson.”
He’s also mentioned as a possible all-Atlantic Coast Conference quarterback.
Jackson shrugs at this hype. “Well, I’m the quarterback, and that’s going to come with it,” he said.
Petrino welcomed great expectations. Players should aspire to be the best, he said. He recalled Elvis Dumervil making good on his aim to be a special pass rusher. Meeting expectations — your own or others’ — requires a disciplined effort to improve each day, the U of L coach said.
“They have to keep it all in perspective,” Petrino said. “Talk is cheap. It’s a show-me world. Show me!”
Coach: Bobby Petrino (58-18 in six seasons at Louisville, 100-39 in 11 seasons as a college head coach.
Last season: 8-5 overall, 5-3 in the Atlantic Coast Conference.
Returning starters: 17 (10 on offense, seven on defense, none in kicking game).
Outlook: Louisville hopes to ride the momentum of the second half of last season. The Cardinals rebounded from an 0-3 start (and losses in four of the first five games) to finish strong. U of L won six of the last seven games, including a 38-24 victory at Kentucky and a 27-21 victory over Texas A&M in the Music City Bowl. With an experienced quarterback (Lamar Jackson) and four starters back in the offensive line, Jackson said “everything will be organized” this season as opposed to the “scramble” of 2015. As for the defense, Petrino spoke of the front seven as “very strong and physical.” With eight games last season decided by a touchdown or less, Petrino has stressed the need for depth so U of L can be the better team in the fourth quarter of close games.
Question marks: The Cardinals will have a new punter and place-kicker. U of L will also be looking for depth in the defensive line.
Game of the year: Louisville can send a message to the ACC by beating Florida State at home on Sept. 17 and then winning at Clemson on Oct. 1. U of L had a 0-4 record against Florida State and Clemson the last two seasons, while winning its other eight games against the rest of the ACC’s Atlantic Division.
Five key players
QB Lamar Jackson: As a freshman last season, he finished second in the voting for the ACC Offensive Rookie of the Year. He already holds the school record for yards rushing by a quarterback in a season and a career. He ran for 960 yards last season.
LB/DE Devonte’ Fields: The senior transfer from TCU was named U of L’s Defensive Player of the Year last season. He made 64 tackles (fourth on the team) and had 11 sacks (ninth most by a U of L player in a season). He led the nation in tackles for loss.
WR Jamari Staples: The 6-4 senior caught 37 passes for 638 yards and three touchdowns last season. He led the team with an average of 17.2 yards per catch. This despite missing the season’s first four games because of knee injury suffered three days before the opening game.
LB Keith Kelsey: The media voted him All-ACC, while the coaches voted him second-team all-league. The senior from Gainesville, Fla., led U of L with 107 tackles. He made seven tackles against Texas A&M in the Music City Bowl. He had 14 against Virginia and 12 against Pittsburgh.
S Josh Harvey-Clemons: The 6-5 senior started 11 games for Georgia in 2013. After sitting out the 2014 season as a transfer, he made 88 tackles for Louisville in 2015. He had a smashing U of L debut (14 tackles, plus two interceptions against Auburn).
2016 College Football Preview
Click on the links below to read other stories from the Herald-Leader’s season preview. Watch for more coming Monday and Tuesday, or pick up the Sunday Herald-Leader and get it all at once.