Lamar Jackson was just playing a video game all year long
Growing up in Palm Beach County, Florida, Louisville quarterback Lamar Jackson often used video games as an escape.
A particular fan of the NCAA Football series during its existence, Jackson would bury himself in the game for hours upon hours in high school, winning the Heisman Trophy with Cam Newton or Robert Griffin III — also known as Auburn QB #2 and Baylor QB #10, in video game parlance — while holding onto the far-off hope that he might someday do the same in real life.
But now that his own time has finally come, Jackson, the current Heisman frontrunner and one of five finalists for the 2016 award, is feeling more inclined than ever to dive back into his console, lest he become distracted by hubbub surrounding his candidacy.
“I try to stay grounded,” Jackson, a sophomore, said Saturday in Orlando when asked about this coming Saturday’s awards ceremony in New York. “I stay in my room and try to play video games to keep my mind off stuff like that. Or me and my friends, I play video games with them or go out and play basketball. But I don’t really try to watch TV to see where they’ve got me at and stuff like that.
“That’s not me,” he continued. “I’ve never been like that.”
After making eight starts and appearing in 12 games during a comparatively under-the-radar true freshman season, Jackson has had to learn how to block out the attention he’s received in his second year under center. And considering the video-game-like numbers he puts up seemingly every week for the 9-3 Cardinals, it’s easy to see why he’s been the focus of so much buzz.
In his first game of the season, a 70-14 win over Charlotte, the 19-year-old Jackson accounted for eight total touchdowns, including an ACC record six through the air. One week later, he set another ACC record with 610 yards of offense (411 passing and 199 on the ground) in a 62-28 win over Syracuse. From there, he ran for four scores and threw for another in a 43-point thrashing of Florida State, at the time the No. 2 team in the country, before accounting for seven more touchdowns in a 31-point win at Marshall.
In just four weeks, Jackson had become the first FBS player in the last decade with two different seven-touchdown games in a season, and Louisville was the No. 3 team in the country, largely as a result of Jackson’s play. So it came as no surprise when the Heisman chants — for a guy who wasn’t even on most preseason watch lists — began following him everywhere he went.
“People notice me a lot more now,” Jackson said of the uptick in attention. “And I’ve still got to get used to it, because I’m still acting like I’m a regular person. Sometimes it (feels weird) but I’m always going to be cool with it.”
Being cool with it and becoming consumed with it are two different things, however, and Jackson said he tried to make it a point to not get too wrapped up in the debate or the fanfare.
“I watch football and stuff (on TV), but I don’t try to watch when they’re talking about (me),” Jackson said. “I’m not an ‘I’ person. I’m about the team. If they’re talking about the team, I might be watching, but if it’s about me, no concern.
“Growing up my mama always taught me to stay humble, and basically, that’s all I’m trying to do,” he added. “I don’t want to get cocky or get too eager and let the emotions of my name being out there affect my game.”
To be sure, Jackson got a dose of reality in Week 5, when he lost a head-to-head matchup with Deshaun Watson and Clemson, despite a strong performance from Jackson himself. Now, Watson is a fellow Heisman finalist, but Jackson says he doesn’t look to Watson, whose Tigers will face Ohio State in the College Football Playoff semifinals, for inspiration.
“I don’t really try to look at other players and see what I can do better,” Jackson said. “We both did a great job leading our teams. Both of us stepped up when it was time to, you know? All of us out there competing, that’s basically what we’re doing — we’re great competitors.”
He’s also tried not to focus on the disappointing end to Louisville’s season — back-to-back losses to Houston and Kentucky that dropped the Cardinals from No. 5 in the Week 12 CFP rankings to No. 13 in the committee’s final poll. Now, instead of potentially playing for a spot in the national championship on New Year’s Eve, Jackson will be playing in the Citrus Bowl against LSU earlier the same day.
“I feel like if we’re in a bad situation it’s on me, every time,” said Jackson, who will return for at least one more season at Louisville before leaving for the NFL. “I’m supposed to be the field general, the leader of the team, leader of the offense, so I should step up.”
Even so, there’s little thought that Louisville’s late stumble should cost Jackson college football’s highest individual honor.
A finalist for the Davey O'Brien Award, the Maxwell Award and the Manning Award in addition to the Heisman, Jackson threw for 3,390 yards and 30 touchdowns this year after passing for 1,840 and 12 touchdowns as a freshman. Additionally, Jackson rushed for 1,538 yards — up from 960 last year — and finished with 21 touchdowns on the ground, as well.
He’s the first player in ACC history with 15 rushing touchdowns and 15 passing touchdowns in the same season. And nationally speaking, Jackson is the first player in FBS history to rush for 1,500 yards and pass for 3,300 yards in a single year. None of the other four finalists — Watson, Michigan linebacker Jabrill Peppers, Oklahoma quarterback Baker Mayfield and Sooners wideout Dede Westbrook — are even in the same class, statistically, and even Jackson admits he’d vote for himself if he could.
“I love myself, like everyone should love themselves,” Jackson said when asked how he’d cast his own vote, if he had one. “And I would vote myself, if something like that came down to it.”
Now the only question left to be answered is whether the Heisman voters agree.
“Right now I’m still grounded,” said Jackson, the ACC player of the year. “I don’t really get too excited about things, not yet, unless it’s placed right up on me, right then and there. And just to know I’ve got a chance, it’s an honor.
“But after coming up playing video games and winning it in video games,” Jackson added of a potential Heisman win, “it would probably be a dream come true.”
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