Louisville Football Preview: Quarterbacks

NCAA Football: Louisville at Virginia
Oct 29, 2016; Charlottesville, VA, USA; Louisville Cardinals quarterback Lamar Jackson (8) celebrates after throwing a touchdown pass against the Virginia Cavaliers in the first quarter at Scott Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

Last Year: Lamar Jackson took the entire nation by storm in 2016, setting numerous school records and scoring 51 total touchdowns to win the Heisman Trophy. Jackson’s victory marked the first time a Louisville player had won college football’s biggest individual prize.

Additionally, Jackson set the single-season record at Louisville with 1521 rushing yards. Highlights of his fantastic season included an eight-touchdown performance against Charlotte (in one half), two seven-touchdown games on the road against Marshall and Boston College and scoring five in the 63-20 win over Florida State.

Projected 2017 starter: Lamar Jackson (Jr.) (6’3″, 208 lb.)

Easily the biggest lock for a returning starter, Jackson enters this game as perhaps college football’s best player. But with his newfound stardom comes greater expectations for the junior.

Jackson enters 2017 as one of the favorites to win the Heisman (as of today, Bovada has him at +800, tied for third with Ohio State’s J.T. Barrett and Penn State’s Saquan Barkley). But the possibility of him repeating may hinge on him having to repeat last year’s numbers, which may prove to be difficult.

Tim Tebow is the prime example to follow, for most who are skeptical of Jackson winning a second trophy. Tebow’s Heisman victory in 2007 had the Florida superstar become the first FBS quarterback with 30+ passing touchdowns (32), and 20+ rushing touchdowns (23). The next year, Tebow had a more efficient year throwing the football (15:2 TD-INT ratio, v. 16:3 in 2007) and 12 rushing touchdowns; but he was surpassed that year by Oklahoma’s Sam Bradford, who led the most prolific offense in college football history and took the Sooners to a national championship appearance.

Jackson last year had 51 total touchdowns, 22 of which came in three games: eight in one half against Charlotte, and seven at Marshall and Boston College. The bar may be set so high, that anything less than that may be considered a disappointment to voters.

Given that Jackson will likely enter the 2018 NFL Draft as one of the top quarterback prospects, this season should be about his growth as a QB. When looking at Jackson, one thing obviously stands out; his unparalleled running ability. This run here against Duke shows the type of vision and agility that Jackson offers:

Very rare, if ever, do we see a quarterback spin away from the nose tackle, cut left then go the opposite direction to get a 13-yard gain. It’s why Jackson has been compared so often to Michael Vick. Jackson can make cuts and moves to turn five-yard plays into 55 yards, and his superb vision as a runner adds to his already impressive home-run ability. Jackson has also gained ten pounds of muscle to improve his durability; this will especially be handy when he goes to the next level.

Moving towards his passing game, Jackson shows instances of a pro passer. He excelled particularly well in intermediary to deep routes across the middle. This throw against NC State highlights his capabilities:

It also features another strength; the zip that Jackson can generate throwing the football. A majority of his throws are placed on tight ropes, which allows him to squeeze the ball into small windows. But in the same token, his propensity for rifling the ball causes accuracy issues, especially given that scouts highlight his inconsistent mechanics as a working point.

This segues into where Jackson has to improve in 2017; deep ball accuracy not across the middle, and decision making. Jackson did not complete a single deep pass to the left side of the field, and this is one he easily should have had.

Though Jackson would eventually find Smith on the next play and score a touchdown on this drive, this was a missed opportunity. If Jackson places the ball right on Smith here, it’s an easy touchdown.

He’s shown flashes of it in games, like this game-winner against Virginia:

but being able to do it consistently is how Jackson can elevate his draft stock for 2018. Jackson’s electrifying ability as a runner can get him out of nearly impossible situations, and nine times out of ten, that’s somebody that you want on your team. But it has also hurt Louisville at times, like with this interception here:

Overall though, Jackson will be the same guy he was last season; an electrifying athlete capable of doing damage with his feet, and delivering lasers to one of many receivers he will have at his disposal. If he can refine some of the weaker points in his passing game, however, Louisville will boast a more consistent, scarier offense than last season.

Notable reserves: Puma Pass (R-Fr.) and Malik Cunningham (true freshman)

With Kyle Bolin transferring to Rutgers, the backup roles go to Puma Pass and Malik Cunningham. Puma offers impressive size for the QB position (6’4″, 220+ lbs.), and displayed smooth passing mechanics in April’s spring game. Another year could help polish his timing on routes and getting used to the speed of the college game, but Pass figures to be the future for Louisville at that position. One underrated asset that Pass has is his ability to escape the pocket and sneak a couple of decent runs; with a much larger frame than Jackson, Pass can arguably take bigger hits and not be affected.

Cunningham enters the fall as one of the top names from the 2017 class. He possesses a skill-set similar to Jackson, and is a stellar playmaker with his feet. He likely will see a redshirt this season to bulk up, but will likely be in the running for the starting job once Jackson leaves Louisville.

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