Last year, Lamar Jackson burst onto the college football scene, slicing up defenses and wrapping up the Heisman race by the end of October.
This season, Jackson will have much higher expectations, and thus, more pressure. He led the Louisville Cardinals to a 9-4 record, but the Cardinals sputtered down the stretch, losing their last three games against in-state rival Kentucky, Houston and LSU in the Citrus Bowl. Louisville’s only other loss came at the hands of Clemson at Memorial Stadium. Perhaps the outcome would have been different, if last years leading receiver, James Quick, was able to pick up a first down on a 4th and 12 with under a minute to go.
Quick is no longer on the roster. However, neither are Cole Hikutini or Jamari Staples, the 2nd and 3rd leading receivers last year, respectively. With those three weapons out of the picture, Jackson will have to make due without 58% of the yards he collected through the air. Jaylen Smith will likely become the number one option for Jackson 2017. Reggie Bonnafon is making the switch to receiver after three years of lining up in the backfield. Traveon Samuel is back as the teams 2nd leading returning receiver.
Despite the limited return on weapons, Jackson will have a veteran offensive line group, with five juniors lining up in front of him.
It’s unlikely that Jackson will put up the gaudy numbers he did last year, when he finished with 51 total touchdowns (30 passing, 21 rushing) and only nine interceptions. But in an offense as fast paced and spread out as Louisville’s Jackson should still be in the race for the Heisman if he stays healthy, which is always a concern for run-first quarterbacks. Jackson will be thrown into the fire immediately, with games against Purdue and at North Carolina before a showdown with Clemson at home.
Jackson’s one true test could come at Doak Campbell Stadium, when he faces a Florida State defense that could be the best in the country. He’ll be asked to make quick decisions in the running game against Josh Sweat and Demarcus Christmas. He’ll also be tasked with throwing the ball against a secondary that includes Tavarus McFadden and Derwin James who might be the best player in the country on either side. James missed last year’s matchup against Louisville, in which Jackson had 146 yards on the ground along with four touchdowns.
There shouldn’t be too much doubt about Jackson’s ability to run, but he only completed 58% of his throws a year ago. And with new weapons who haven’t had much playing time, it could be a tough start to 2017 for Jackson. Lamar faded down the stretch last season, and had four turnovers in the loss against Kentucky, including a crucial fumble that cost Louisville the game. But another year of 3,000 passing yards and 1,500 rushing yards shouldn’t be out of the equation, especially with Bobby Petrino still running the show. If Jackson wants to have another year like he did last year, he’ll have to improve his accuracy and decision-making.
The quarterback position is absolutely loaded this year, throughout college football, and if Jackson wants to keep his name among the best of the best, he’ll have to work without elite weapons, and stay on track for throughout a whole regular season.
Cover Photo via The Crunch Zone
Other Photo(s) via The Boston Globe