I’ll be the first to admit that I thought something like last night could never have happened at Louisville. Sure, one could create a super-athlete on an NCAA Football video game and win multiple Heisman’s at Louisville, giving a cool passing thought of, “It’ll be nice when Louisville has a Heisman Trophy winner.” But I never thought I would see the day when the Cardinals would actually have one in real life.
There were a lot of preexisting caveats prior to Lamar Jackson’s coronation as a Heisman Trophy winner. If Elvis Dumervil had one of the best defensive seasons of all-time and wasn’t even invited, when would Louisville ever have a Heisman finalist? The same could have been said for Brian Brohm, when Louisville rolled to an Orange Bowl victory in 2006. It also applied to Teddy Bridgewater, who prior to last night had the most valid argument for the greatest quarterback in Louisville football history, and certainly has an impeccable legacy of his own.
I talked to my longtime friend Bradley about the possibility of Jackson winning the Heisman back in August, and it would be lengthy discussions about what Louisville could actually do in 2016. Yes, I did believe Jackson would have a great year. He showed flashes of brilliance as a raw athlete in 2015, and ended on an exceptionally high note with legendary performances against Kentucky and Texas A&M. Bobby Petrino has a reputation as one of the top minds, when it comes to developing offenses in college football. Another year in Petrino’s system to develop as a passer and learn the playbook, and Jackson’s potential was certainly limitless.
But would he actually be in contention for the Heisman Trophy, with the likes of Deshaun Watson, Dalvin Cook, and Christian McCaffrey all being discussed as frontrunners in the preseason? There are many great players that have never won the Heisman. Vince Young, Ndamukong Suh, Tommie Frazier, and Michael Vick — who tweeted that Jackson was five times better than him — all come to mind as greats that have never won the trophy. It wasn’t necessarily unreasonable to think as great as Jackson could be, he may or may not win the Heisman.
But just like he did for most of 2016, Jackson sprinted, leaped and launched past all the doubt and expectations even the most pessimistic of Louisville fans had. Some will say it started with Jackson’s incredible performance in the Music City Bowl last year, but it began this year with eight touchdowns in one half against Charlotte. Eight touchdowns in a game is uber-impressive, but one half? That’s the stuff of legends, and also the things you do when you create your super-athlete in NCAA Football.
From there, the first half of the season was about what Jackson would do next to top that. Eight touchdowns in one half? No big deal, follow that up with being the first FBS quarterback with 400+ passing yards and 199 rushing yards. Not even Vick, Cam Newton or Robert Griffin III — the latter two who did win the Heisman Trophy — had a single-game stat line like that.
Oh, and add the defining play in the Heisman campaign as the proverbial cherry-on-top.
But how would Jackson fare against elite competition, with College GameDay making its first ever trip to Louisville? Jackson answered with authority, as he tallied five total touchdowns against Florida State. Let’s also add that this was a historic win not only for the program — the first time Louisville defeated a top-two team in school history — but also scored 63 points on the Seminoles, a record-worst for one of college football’s elites.
Even when Jackson had a sizable lead in the Heisman trail after Florida State, and as his national profile grew to unprecedented heights, he continued to put up insane numbers. Jackson would get seven touchdowns at Marshall, a place where the Herd have won 85% of their home games at their stadium. Or even at Clemson, where he rallied Louisville from an 18-point deficit and only came two yards away from an upset. Oh, and add 457 total yards and three touchdowns in the 42-36 loss. Losses are normally supposed to derail a Heisman campaign, but in Jackson’s case against Clemson, it may have grown stronger that night.
Jackson’s feats arguably may have peaked in the loss at Clemson, but that didn’t stop him from putting up more Heisman-caliber moments. Jackson would get a game-sealing touchdown against Duke, a game-winning touchdown against Virginia, and adds another seven-touchdown performance at Boston College. At some point, it became obvious that no matter what guys like Watson did, Jackson was too far ahead for any contender to reach. Even with losing in humiliating fashion at Houston and Kentucky, the gap was too wide for any contender to really pass Jackson’s meteoric pace in 2016.
With Jackson’s victory officially declared, and now as the youngest Heisman Trophy winner ever, there will be even higher expectations in 2017. Even more questions will be asked about him, as Jackson transitions from a potential breakout QB entering 2016, to one of the top names in the sport. All of us will wonder if Jackson can replicate his 51 touchdowns next year, or how Jackson will develop as a pocket passer, or where he will go on 2018 NFL Draft boards. There are many more questions that will be discussed, especially if Jackson can become the second man to win two Heisman’s.
There are also questions for the U of L football program, who is still on a road to the national championship that Howard Schellenberger once proclaimed. Time is still a variable for now, but Jackson’s Heisman victory is a very noteworthy landmark. Recruiting should see an immediate uptick; after all, Louisville is expanding the football stadium again. The Cardinals have etched their place as ACC contenders — and potentially into national title discussions. There’s also the possibility that high school quarterbacks may want to follow Jackson as a potential Heisman-caliber quarterback, with Petrino guiding them every step of the way.
There is no more speculation for Jackson’s status as the greatest player in Louisville football history, even as he begins another Heisman campaign in 2017. But, there is one more question that will be asked; where will Tom Jurich build the Lamar Jackson statue to complement Johnny Unitas?