John Clay

Even Kentucky fans should appreciate Louisville’s Lamar Jackson

Louisville quarterback Lamar Jackson celebrates a score during U of L’s 41-38 loss to Kentucky on Saturday, Nov. 26, 2016 at Papa John's Cardinal Stadium in Louisville.
Louisville quarterback Lamar Jackson celebrates a score during U of L’s 41-38 loss to Kentucky on Saturday, Nov. 26, 2016 at Papa John's Cardinal Stadium in Louisville. Lexington Herald-Leader

Come on, you gotta love Lamar.

If you’re a Kentucky football fan, you don’t have to love Lamar Jackson. Chances are, you don’t like Lamar Jackson. He is the quarterback and best player of your archrival, the Louisville Cardinals. You want Kentucky to beat Louisville. And Lamar. Again.

Still, you should appreciate Lamar. After all, come Saturday when the Cardinals invade Kroger Field to play the Kentucky Wildcats for the annual Governor’s Cup in the final regular-season game of 2017, it is probably the last time we will see the only Heisman Trophy winner to play for a state school play a game in this state.

Jackson is a true junior. He can enter the NFL Draft after this season. You’d have to think he will. After all, what reason is there for coming back? He won the sport’s highest individual honor as a sophomore. By most measures, he’s improved as a junior. True, as a senior, perhaps he could lead Louisville to an ACC title and a spot in the College Football Playoff. He could also get hurt.

So during this UK-U of L week, we should take time not to look ahead to the future, but look back to the past. We should appreciate the remarkable college career of one Lamar Jackson.

We start by going back to the summer of 2015 at the annual Governor’s Cup Luncheon when Louisville Coach Bobby Petrino let it slip how much he liked his true freshman quarterback. That was a sign. Petrino is not one to lather public praise upon his rookies. And though the coach did not make any headline-grabbing proclamations that afternoon where Jackson was concerned, he said enough to make you think he thought he had something special.

Petrino was right. As a freshman, the Pompano Beach, Fla., native rushed for 960 yards and threw for 1,840 yards and 12 touchdowns. Replacing starter Kyle Bolin in the regular-season finale against Kentucky, Jackson engineered a 38-24 comeback victory by rushing for 186 yards and two touchdowns while throwing for 130 and another score.

He executed individual runs of 10, 13 (twice), 14, 15, 16, 21, 24 and 29 yards that day. He was too elusive to corral and too fast to catch. When Jackson scored on a 13-yard run with 4:09 left. Louisville had successfully overcome a 24-7 halftime deficit.

That was a glimpse of greatness to come. As a sophomore, Jackson rushed for 1,571 yards and threw for 3,543 more. He produced a ridiculous 51 touchdowns — 30 by air, 21 by land. At year’s end, he was called to the podium in New York to accept the trophy as the sport’s best individual player.

There are those who believe Jackson is having a better season in 2017. His completion percentage has improved from 56.2 to 59.8. His yards per carry has risen from 6.0 to 6.8. Louisville is just 7-4 and unranked, however. A Heisman repeat isn’t in Jackson’s cards.

“Certainly I don’t watch everybody all the time and I know there’s some guys playing some exceptional football,” said Kentucky Coach Mark Stoops on Monday, “but he absolutely should be in New York because you’d be hard pressed to find a more talented guy than him.”

Last February, Jackson was in Lexington to accept the Kentucky Sports Figure of the Year award at the Bluegrass Sports Banquet. He could not have been classier or more generous with his time. As his U of L chaperones were urging him to leave, Jackson kept posing for pictures and signing autographs. He made plenty of Lexington friends that night.

He will encounter a less friendly Lexington crowd on Saturday. As it should be. Louisville wants to avenge last year’s loss to the Cats at Papa John’s. Kentucky wants to become the program’s first team since 1984 to win eight games in a regular season. The Cats and their fans want to say bye-bye to Lamar by winning a second straight game over the Cardinals.

Hopefully, however, they take a moment, even if just to themselves, to show some love to Lamar along the way.

Next game

Louisville at Kentucky

Noon Saturday (SEC)

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