Lamar Jackson is Louisville’s future — and present

As Louisville prepares to take on NC State Saturday afternoon in Raleigh — and then Florida State in Tallahassee on Oct. 17 — it appears that the Cardinals are going to move forward with true freshman Lamar Jackson as its starting quarterback. Heading to Raleigh, Jackson is not only UofL’s leading passer with 495 passing yards and two touchdowns, he’s also the team’s leading rusher, with 314 net yards on the ground, as well as four rushing touchdowns, through the Cardinals’ first four games this fall.

With veteran Will Gardner still sidelined and recovering from a knee injury, and youngsters Kyle Bolin and Reggie Bonnafon proving to be inconsistent, it would seem that the Cardinals are in a position where, for better or for worse, they’re ready to pass the torch to Jackson and see what he can do with it.

Although it was an inferior opponent, Jackson proved his mettle against Samford, completing 15 of 22 passes for 212 yards. Though the did throw another interception, Jackson had a touchdown pass and rushed for a whopping 184 net yards, giving him 396 all-purpose yards for the game.

He looked like a young man coming into his own — a young man who is adjusting to the speed of the college game, and is learning how to pick his spots and make plays while keeping his composure.

“Lamar is a very, very talented guy. He made some really good decisions in that (Samford) game. I thought he took care of the ball. He operated the offense,” said UofL head coach Bobby Petrino. “Besides his ability and his play making, you have to operate the offense, make sure we’re in the right formations, make sure we get the motions in on time, make sure the tight ends get where they belong. It’s all a learning process for him, but he continues to work hard, and he’s gotten a lot better. I look forward to him continuing to improve on a weekly basis.”

Jackson’s play certainly has had the attention of NC State’s coaching staff all week.

In what will be a key Atlantic Division struggle, which has major implications as far as the standings and potential bowl placement come December, the Wolfpack have to find a way to slow down this dual-threat talent who is, in many ways, a younger version of their own quarterback, Jacoby Brissett.

“They have bounced around with their quarterback,” said NCSU head coach Dave Doeren of the Cardinals. “Lamar Jackson settled in last game and had a great rushing performance. He is their leading rusher. We expect to see him in a lot of QB rushes. He threw the ball effectively, over 200 yards, but its not like you have four games of video on him. He has been sporadic in the first three games. You get a whole game of him against Stamford and they had their way with them.”

While the Samford game went largely smoothly for Jackson, the first three games of the season were a different story. He looked lost at times, even while he piled up rushing yardage against the likes of Auburn and Clemson. He had three interceptions in those three contests, all of which were losses for the Cardinals.

For Jackson to give Louisville a chance of going into Raleigh and winning — and to keep the job as starting quarterback, for that matter — Jackson is going to have to protect the football while also producing.

[callout2]“We are going to get rid of those freshman mistakes, they are gone, right?” Petrino joked.[/callout2]

[callout2]“I mean, that is what we want to do. We want to get rid of them and let us go execute and do the things he is capable of doing. Like I have said from day one, he is a guy that is very, very talented, has really unbelievable instincts. He can see things and react to things that sometimes other guys can’t and he just has to continue to operate the game better, operate within the scheme and the game better, trust his protection better at times. He can make the throws.”[/callout2]

There was one play in particular in the Samford game that made Petrino feel that Jackson was finally starting to get it under center at the college level. As he felt pressure, Jackson stayed in control in the pocket and unfurled a perfect strike to James Quick for a Louisville touchdown.

“I keep going back to the touchdown throw to Quick but there is an unblocked guy coming free there and he just stands right there, snaps his wrist and hits him in stride and it ends up being a touchdown. That is kind of the progression (we want), and he needs to continue to get better,” Petrino said.

Although Jackson appears to be in position to get the Lion’s share of snaps against the Wolfpack and beyond, it appears that the Louisville staff may still try to find ways to get Bonnafon and Bolin involved in the offense. Bonnafon, like Jackson, gives UofL a potential rushing option at quarterback, and he could find a niche on short-yardage situations for the Cardinals. There may even be some spots where they get on the field together, with one at quarterback, and the other serving as a tailback or fullback.

“We will just keep working on it and see where we are at,” Petrino said of Bonnafon’s role. “Reggie did a real nice job with it. I think it worked out pretty good (against Samford) but we have to just continue to see where we go with it. I like the speed that is out there and the ability of two good playmakers. It is something that I think can help us as we go on. The ability to get more speed on the field, make bigger plays. And one of the things that is one of our goals, as we go forward in this conference, is to be the fastest team in the conference. We are going to recruit to speed and we are going to try to get the guys on the field that will make plays because they are faster than the other guys.”

One of the real keys for Louisville with Jackson under center — aside of trying to keep him composed in the pocket — is making him understand the nature of running with the ball at this level.

Naturally, there’s a need to protect the ball. But there’s also a need for a young, mobile quarterback to figure out ways not to take so many direct hits when they’re taking off beyond the line of scrimmage.

“You know, he has been running believing that he is going to make every play, and we have to understand that I get as much as I can, get the first downs and I take care of myself,” said Petrino of Jackson’s rushing ability.

“He believes a lot in his ability to cut-back and make huge plays, and when he does that and scores touchdowns or runs for 73 yards, you know you like it. I think it is that second and third cut-back that isn’t going to happen at this level of football. It is going to be faster (against NC State) with the players he goes against than what he saw (against Samford).”