CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Lamar Jackson didn’t start last season thinking about winning the Heisman Trophy. It just ended up that way.
Of course the Louisville quarterback had a lot to do with outcome, thanks to his dizzying array of open-field moves and downfield throws.
Jackson figures it’s a good approach to start this year, too, even with the chance to become only the second player to repeat as a Heisman winner.
“I love the game of football,” Jackson said Thursday during the Atlantic Coast Conference’s preseason media days. “I didn’t think I would win the Heisman Trophy — it just happened, just playing football. And that’s what I’m doing this year.
“I’m trying to win games and win a national championship. That’s the biggest thing to me.”
Jackson, a 6-foot-3, 211-pound junior from Pompano Beach, Florida, was a one-man offense for the Cardinals. He threw for 3,543 yards and 30 touchdowns with nine interceptions while ranking second in the ACC in rushing with 1,571 yards to go with a league-best 21 TDs on the ground and rank fifth nationally.
Now comes the challenge of following up on all that production, and doing it with the pressure that arrives the moment someone hoists that famous trophy presented to college football’s top player.
While the Heisman has been around since 1935, there’s only been one player to win twice: Ohio State running back Archie Griffin in 1974 and 1975.
Jackson knows all about it. Asked about that history, Jackson immediately brought up a conversation he had with Griffin since winning last year’s honor.
“He said, ‘I’m the only person that’s done it,’ something like that,” Jackson said. “But he just talked to me, saying, ‘You’ve got to play harder this year because they’re going to be coming after you.’”
That explains why coach Bobby Petrino said the coaching staff started working in the spring to expand Jackson’s game. That included getting him “comfortable” with taking the snap under center instead of the shotgun, where Jackson did so much of his damage last year.
Jackson said the trickiest part has been dropping back quickly so that he doesn’t get tripped up by an offensive lineman stepping back against an oncoming rusher.
“The best thing about Lamar is it was never an issue of taking the snap, so he could always take the snap,” Petrino said. “It was just getting used to the footwork, getting to the right mesh point to help the running back out. And I think it’ll help us be a harder team to defend. I really believe that.
“But he worked hard on his progression reads. He took a lot of pride out on the practice field, understanding the coverages, what the safeties are doing, and going through his progression. He also worked real hard on his footwork, making sure he gets set, gets his back leg under his hip, and when he does that and stands tall, he’s a very, very accurate thrower.”
It’s hard to imagine Jackson can do even more than he did last season, when he set a league record by averaging 393.4 yards of total offense to go with an ACC record for rushing yardage by a quarterback. Along the way, he had an ACC single-game record of 610 total yards against Syracuse and then thrust himself into the national Heisman discussion by accounting for five touchdowns in a September rout of highly ranked Florida State.
And yet, defenders expect Jackson will have some new tricks in 2017.
“Shifty, fast — he’s just an all-around great athlete,” North Carolina State senior defensive end Bradley Chubb said. “No matter how hard you try to prepare for it, he’s going to bring out something new when you’re playing him.”