Meet the breakout star QB who could turn Louisville into a title contender

Lamar Jackson
Andy Lyons/Getty Images

LOUSVILLE – Nearly three years after Teddy Bridgewater last suited up for the Louisville Cardinals, you’ll still see young fans here wearing his jersey and pictures from his playing career displayed prominently on peoples’ walls. The Minnesota Vikings star helped put a then-Big East program on the national map in large part by shredding fourth-ranked Florida in the 2013 Sugar Bowl.

In fact, he made a certain high school quarterback in Boynton Beach, Florida, take notice.

“I found out [Bridgewater] was from Miami – that’s close to home,” said Lamar Jackson. “I remember watching the game where they beat Florida. I’m like, ‘Man, he’s good.’ So when I got an offer [from Louisville], I was like, that’s where Teddy went? I’ll go there.”

Three years later, Jackson is himself poised to become Louisville’s next star. As a true freshman in 2015, the raw former four-star recruit largely flew under the radar nationally while making seven starts for a team that went 7-5 during the regular season.

But then, in the Music City Bowl against Texas A&M, Jackson showed the makings of something special. He shredded the Aggies for 227 passing yards, 226 rushing yards and four combined touchdowns in a 27-21 Cardinals win.

That his markedly improved performance came following a month of preparation was no coincidence. He’d spent the regular season mostly winging it.

There were certain plays where I would know one side of the field, but not the other side of the field,” said the 6-foot-3, 196-pound Jackson. “I’d be like, man, I forgot what the routes are. If it’s not open, I’ll run.

“But then the bowl game came around, coach put it in my head that I’ve got to learn the playbook. I knew what everyone was doing. I had success.”

For Louisville, success in 2016 would mean making the jump from fringe Top 25 team to conference and national championship contender. It’s both the Cardinals’ third season in the ACC, where they’ve gone 10-6 in league play to date, and coach Bobby Petrino’s third season back at the helm.

In Year 3 his first time around, in 2005, Louisville went 9-3 and reached the Gator Bowl in its first season after moving up from Conference USA to the Big East. In Petrino’s third season at Arkansas, in 2010, the Razorbacks went 10-3, reached the Sugar Bowl and finished 12th in the final polls.

Petrino’s 2016 team begins the season ranked 19th in the AP poll, which may seem a stretch to some. But after watching the Cardinals practice last week, I believe it’s too low.

Petrino has recruited much better than anticipated and it shows, especially on offense, where the Cardinals are loaded with young skill players. It’s also no secret he’s taken in transfers who ran into disciplinary issues at their previous schools, two of whom, standout pass-rusher Devonte Fields (TCU) and safety Josh Harvey-Clemons (Georgia), are among the best players on the team.

But more than anything, optimism for Louisville centers around Jackson, who could emerge as a legitimate Heisman contender this fall thanks to his highlight-making ability. The guy who didn’t know the playbook last year now looks like a surprisingly poised and confident passer.

“We took him [as a recruit] saying he’s a great athlete,” said Petrino. “I was shocked when he got here how well he threw the football, to be honest with you. I didn’t know he could throw it that well.

Bobby Petrino

“The preparation for the bowl game was huge because we could go back and re-teach everything. Now I feel like he’s really focused and in command of understanding what he’s doing out there.”

Jackson ran for 960 yards on 163 attempts as a freshman but completed a modest 54.7 percent of his passes. Even in that spectacular bowl performance, he completed just 12 of 26 throws, producing his biggest highlight on a 61-yard touchdown run.

If Petrino has his way, the quarterback’s 2016 stat line will look much different.

We’d like him to throw for 3,000 yards,” said quarterback guru Petrino. “If we can execute our passing game and do the things we’ve worked really hard on in the spring and [fall] camp, the running yards will take care of themselves. What will really help our running game is if we can throw the ball.”

Jackson has no shortage of talent around him. Senior receivers Jamari Staples and James Quick and senior tight end Cole Hikutini all averaged at least 16 yards per catch last season. Sophomores Jaylen Smith and Traveon Samuel and converted quarterback Reggie Bonnafan should see increased production.

Meanwhile, Petrino has heaped praise throughout camp on senior tailback Brandon Radcliff, a hard-charging runner who’s amassed a combined 1,371 yards the past two seasons. At practice, he displayed quite a burst after handoff.

Petrino in the past has shown a penchant for using all available weapons in his play-calling. But while he’s coached numerous standout quarterbacks – Brian Brohm and Stefan LeFors at Louisville, Ryan Mallett and Tyler Wilson at Arkansas and Brandon Doughty at Western Kentucky – none possessed a skill set quite like Jackson’s.

In fact, Jackson’s quick ascension last season surprised many longtime Louisville observers given the coach’s history of primarily pro-style passers. Jackson seemingly did not fit the mold.

It helped, though, that Jackson ran the Pistol offense in high school. Back in 2010 at Arkansas, Petrino hired assistant Chris Klenakis from Nevada, where he’d been an offensive coordinator for the Pistol’s creator, Chris Ault, and coached standout quarterback Colin Kaepernick. Petrino began incorporating Pistol formations he broke back out for Jackson last season.

Klenakis reunited with Petrino at Louisville, moving up to coordinator this spring after Garrick McGee left for Illinois.

But Jackson, who as a recruit entertained offers from Florida and Nebraska among others, chose to play for Petrino in part to expand his repertoire.

“When I came to college I didn’t want to be known as one of those spread-type quarterbacks,” said Jackson. “I wanted to become a balanced quarterback, because I want to go to the next level, I don’t only want to be in shotgun.”

Fans will get a sense pretty quickly for how much he’s progressed. Louisville plays Atlantic Division heavyweights Florida State (Sept. 17) and Clemson (Oct. 1) within the first five weeks of the season, by which point Jackson could be a Heisman contender or, if the Cardinals lose to both, doomed to another season off the grid.

“I’m just trying to help our team get to where we need to be,” he said. “Our name gets put out there a little bit, then we don’t live up to the hype. But this year is a different story. We’re trying to finish it.”