Lamar Jackson’s ability to inspire how-did-that-happen astonishment extends to the hype leading into a new season. For instance, how does a Heisman Trophy winner not get included in the top five of an ESPN list of the best returning quarterbacks?
“The culture we live in right now is anybody can write anything they want to,” Louisville Coach Bobby Petrino said in dismissing the list.
Or how to explain Jackson’s jaw-dropping production last season? This time a year ago, he acknowledged that he had an incomplete grasp of the playbook. Then he posted spectacular numbers and won the Heisman Trophy.
He did not even try to explain that one. “I just can’t wait for this year to start,” he said.
Here’s another head-scratcher: Louisville does not want more of the same from a player who passed for 3,543 yards, ran for 1,571 yards and participated in 51 touchdown plays last season. The Cardinals want a wiser, more efficient, less reliant-on-improvisation Lamar Jackson. Hence, the talk at U of L’s media day about more accurate passing, dutiful adherence to the checklist of possible receivers, throwing the ball away rather than getting sacked and — rev up the Wayback Machine — at times taking snaps while under center.
“Coach Nick, he’s always making me watch film, and stuff like that,” Jackson said of quarterbacks coach Nick Petrino. “He’s always in my head. ‘C’mon, get in your book.’ … It just motivates me. I’ve got to better myself because I know I have the talent to do it. I just have to have the mindset.”
Jackson suggested a new close-cropped haircut signaled a growing maturation born from last season’s thrilling high-wire act.
“I’m a lot older now,” he said when asked why he cut his hair (he also no longer wears braces). “Mature. I’m a junior now, so I just felt I should change.”
Jackson, who is 20, joked about the removal of about four inches of hair making him more aerodynamic, thus faster and more elusive.
Louisville coaches spoke of the need to run the ball more effectively this season. Such an attack would force defenses to shift a bit of the game-planning away from Jackson.
“They’re definitely going to be focusing on him a lot more,” Nick Petrino said of opposing defenses, “and I think what’s really going to help us out is I think we’re going to be able to run the ball a lot better without having him be the one running it.”
Reggie Bonnafon, Jackson’s predecessor at quarterback, figures to get a chance to be that running back.
“True hand-off, downhill running plays,” Nick Petrino said. “Not just always zone-read or read option (plays). … I think that will take the pressure off Lamar and help him out as well.”
Bobby Petrino suggested a downside to Jackson’s ability to go off script and make so many memorable plays last season. Jackson would hold onto the ball too long, waiting in vain for a big play opportunity to appear. This was one factor why Jackson was sacked 22 times in the season’s final three games, he said.
“Some of it is being patient, and not thinking the big play is going to be there every time,” the U of L coach said. “Sometimes your successes become your enemies in that sense where it was all happening and it was all so easy and it was all so big.
“OK, now we just have got to be patient and take what they give you and get first downs.”
Coach: Bobby Petrino (67-22 in seven seasons at Louisville, 109-43 in 12 seasons as a college head coach)
Last season: 9-4 overall, 7-1 in the Atlantic Coast Conference. Lost to LSU 29-9 in the Citrus Bowl.
Returning starters: 16 (five on offense, nine on defense, plus the punter and place kicker).
Outlook: In summing up Louisville’s 2016 season, Petrino cited a Don Henley song circa 1982: Dirty Laundry. “Everybody likes dirty laundry,” the U of L coach said. “They want to kick you when you’re down. Good song, huh?” Petrino meant that the attention paid to the Cards losing their final three games obscured the 9-1 start that vaulted U of L to a top five national ranking.
Quarterback Lamar Jackson posted cartoon-like statistics: a school record 1,571 yards rushing, passing for 3,543 yards and 30 touchdowns, the latter one shy of Teddy Bridgewater’s school record in 2013. He won the Heisman Trophy. Now, Louisville wants him to be even better (read: more efficient).
New co-offensive coordinator and offensive line coach Mike Summers is tasked with giving Jackson more protection (he was sacked 22 times in those season-ending three losses). U of L hopes an improved running game will make Jackson less inclined to try to make home-run plays.
New defensive coordinator Peter Sirmon works with nine returning starters, which include what Street & Smith called the ACC’s best secondary.
Question marks: Will Reggie Bonnafon, a converted quarterback who moved to wide receiver, ease the responsibility placed on Lamar Jackson by filling the need for a running back that occupies the minds of opposing defenses? Will a rebuilt defensive line and linebacking corps adequately support a standout secondary? Will a retooled offensive line protect Jackson?
Games of the year: Defending national champion Clemson plays at Louisville on Sept. 16. U of L plays at Florida State on Oct. 21. The Cards are 1-5 against those two league rivals the last three seasons.
Five key players
QB Lamar Jackson: He is a franchise player who is the face (plus arm and legs) of Louisville football. Street & Smith said this third, and presumably last, season of his college career does nothing less than close “Louisville’s window” of opportunity to become a national program. Jackson set a national championship as this season’s goal. Only Archie Griffin (1974 and 1975) won the Heisman twice. Since then eight winners, including Tim Tebow and Johnny Manziel, played another college season without winning the Heisman again.
RB Reggie Bonnafon: He has been Louisville football’s version of an utility man. In 2014, he started five games at quarterback. In 2015, he gave way to Jackson at quarterback and shifted to wide receiver. Now, U of L hopes the former Trinity player can be the running back to complement Jackson. Jackson believes, calling Bonnafon “a freak of nature.”
CB Jaire Alexander: Street & Smith named him all-ACC and a second-team All-American. He led U of L with five interceptions last season. The knowledge that comes with being a two-year starter makes Alexander “a real special player,” Petrino said. Jackson called Alexander “the best cornerback in the country.”
LB Trevon Young: He missed last season because of a serious injury sustained in the 2015 Music City Bowl. In 2015, he was credited with 8.5 sacks and 32 tackles. U of L will need that playmaking on defense with linebacker Keith Kelsey and defensive end Devonte Fields gone. Kelsey led the Cards by being part of 93 tackles last season. Fields’ six sacks ranked second on the team.
P Mason King/PK Blanton Creque: These Kentuckians give U of L proven kickers. King, who is from St. Xavier High School, set a school record last season with an average of 43.9 yards per punt. Sixteen of his punts came to rest inside the opposition’s 20-yard-line. Creque, who is from Shelbyville, made 16 of 19 field goals.