Here’s a frightening thought for defenses across college football: Lamar Jackson, the reigning Heisman Trophy winner and the best player in the nation, keeps getting better and better and better.
Jackson, who struggled down the stretch of his astonishing sophomore campaign, is developing into a more well-rounded player. He’s every bit the playmaker he’s always been, but he’s evolving into a unique weapon.
His growth within the pocket during the first two weeks of the season has been striking. He’s gone from a solid pocket passer into one with nuance. From a college star and fringe first-round prospect, into a top-tier one.
This is what will have NFL evaluators excited — and what’s jumped out from Jackson’s first two games this season. He’s beginning to master Bobby Petrino’s pro-style offense and the NFL concepts within it.
Indeed, that was one of the coach’s goals coming into the season: Turn Jackson from a devastating playmaker, with a rapid release and all kinds of arm talent, and help him evolve into a top NFL prospect.
“[Petrino] wants to make me NFL ready, a better player,” Jackson told Bleacher Report this summer. “I want to make our team better. We’re on the same page.”
Much has been made of Petrino articulating that Jackson would be featured under center more this year. It’s true: Pro quarterbacks do spend more time under center — though that’s diminishing — than the vast majority of pace-and-space offenses at the college level. But that impact is overstated.
At this point, “pro-style” refers to a system that has the quarterback make full-field reads, run through a full progression (and adjust based on the post-snap coverage principle), and, perhaps most importantly, get the ball out on time and in rhythm, rather than playing “see it, throw it” football.
Petrino certainly has not held back. He’s unleashed everything on Jackson: A vast array of formations, pre-snap responsibilities, complex reads and sight adjustments, with Jackson having to morph on the fly if the defense presents a different look post-snap than it did pre-snap. This isn’t typical chuck-and-dump spread stuff.
Jackson has answered the call. Through two games he’s upped his average yards per attempt by almost a full yard on his way to throwing for 771 yards, 5 touchdowns and no interceptions.
The Cardinals did things a little differently during Jackson’s Heisman campaign. They mixed and matched some veer-and-shoot principles with concepts Petrino has been running his entire coaching life, including in the NFL.
Now, they’ve tweaked the system. They’re still running some of the more simplistic run-pass option concepts. And why not? They’re damn effective, but Jackson is now receiving his full NFL education a year ahead of schedule.
It starts with something as simple as the Cardinals boot-action package.
Most of the NFL-style bootleg plays are alien to spread-option teams and their QBs. Usually, their play-action attacks mimic RPOs; the quarterback sticks the ball into the chest of a running back while still keeping his eyes downfield. Either they’re reading a defender, or feigning it. Rarely are they asked to turn their back to the defense, then reset and re-evaluate the coverage.
That’s exactly what’s demanded of Jackson, a player who could effortlessly put up gaudy stats in a pure spread-option system.
The play below looks fairly innocuous, but it’s an important part of Jackson’s development.
First, he evaluates the front and looks for a pre-snap key that gives away the defensive coverage.
As always, Petrino gives his quarterback the freedom to change the direction of plays. They don’t get complete freedom to jump to any play in the playbook, but they’re able to switch up to which side they’re running the concept. Jackson gets a chance to orchestrate at the line of scrimmage, mostly with dummy audible calls that he delivers on each and every play.
On the example above, Jackson makes an “explode” call, shifting the strength of the formation.
It’s a classic Mike Shanahan-style bootleg: a true NFL concept with the quarterback shifting the play himself, rather than the entire offense standing up to look at a gigantic Stephen A. Smith card on the sideline. For a team that’s still running veer-and-shoot concepts, it’s advanced stuff.
Of course, Jackson’s rare speed at the position make bootlegs and rolling pockets a tough thing to stop. Miss the fake and lose contain, and he’s gone before the defense can do anything about it. And even when the backside defender makes the right read, like above, Jackson’s release allows him to get rid of the ball before a tackler is able to corral him.
While the pre-snap stuff is big for Jackson’s development, the real fun begins with Petrino’s signature vertical passing game.
Petrino is a masterful play-caller who looks to attack man coverage with switch-releases (receivers crisscrossing at the line of scrimmage) to spring receivers open downfield. That style of attack has allowed the coach to churn out quarterbacks who consistently hit big plays. They simply survey the landscape, see who’s rampaging downfield, and fling the ball to them.
Jackson’s more advanced than that, though. He allows Petrino to open up all of the coverage-beaters. Through two weeks we’ve seen everything from the Cardinals: From the “levels” concepts Peyton Manning made famous, to a double-post “arrow” concept Tom Brady is still running in New England.
The coach has been adjusting some of his old concepts, putting his trust in Jackson to read everything correctly and hit every type of throw. Nothing is dumbed down. This is one of his classic designs:
It’s essentially a smash concept with a pair of escape valves, run out of an empty formation. There’s “trips” to the field side with an attached tight end.
Here’s the modified version Jackson and company have been running this season:
The field side looks the same. It’s the same smash concept: a post and flag route combination, with a third receiver coming underneath.
Things change on the backside, though. Now, the tight end is unattached, and he’s running a fade route. It’s designed to create a natural rub with the outermost receiver who’s still running a hitch, but cutting further inside the numbers – often a running back motioned out.
It’s an excellent design. With five receivers on the field – using the entire width of the field – the defense is almost forced into a split-safety look. The field-side safety is put in a bind: Do they play the flag route, or do they play the post? The other safety is occupied with providing support over the top against the two boundary receivers, opening up a big gulf between the tandem.
Petrino and Jackson came after Purdue with the concept on a big third down in the fourth quarter of the Week 1 matchup.
It played out perfectly. The boundary safety had to slide over to take away the fade pattern (the rub worked, too). The field safety was conflicted and left flat-footed as the slot receiver zipped into the space between the pair. Jackson delivered another NFL throw on another NFL concept.
Working in concert with the play design to manipulate the safeties on full-field reads is an advanced tool. It separates good college quarterbacks from those eventual top prospects who go on to thrive at the next level. It’s something Jackson is still developing. Yet he’s already further along than some recent top draft choices.
Later, on the same drive, Jackson delivered this special throw:
It’s three-deep coverage. Jackson held the single-high safety in the middle of the field by flashing his eyes first to his left before working back over the field. The safety bit, gifting enough time for Jackson’s receiver to get downfield before the quarterback split the safety and corner with a throw on a rope. In fact, Jackson had both vertical receivers open and flanking the safety on the play.
You will have to look hard to find another quarterback this season who will deliver a similar pair of throws, within a comparatively complex offensive structure, on the same drive.
When Jackson first got to Louisville he struggled to grasp the playbook. “It looked like foreign letters,” Jackson told Bleacher Report prior to his Heisman-winning season. “I came from a high school where I didn’t have a playbook or anything like that. Coach would draw it up and get the headset on, and we’d go after it.”
Now, he’s running among the most advanced and varied systems in the country.
That makes Jackson a unicorn. He’s the rare quarterback who’s operating pro-style concepts, and verbiage, while being the best open-field playmaker in the country in the non-Saquon Barkley category.
He’s always been a cool customer under pressure. No moment too big, no pass rusher too intimidating. But Jackson’s instincts are shifting. He’s been more composed and comfortable inside the pocket.
After all, that’s where he wants to be. “I noticed a lot of dual-threat quarterbacks in the shotgun or in the pistol. A lot of them don’t last forever,” Jackson said last year. “I want to be in the pocket.”
Part of improving in the pocket is being willing to hang in there, even when chaos is enveloping you.
Jackson is no longer bailing on reads early in a progression. Instead, he’s hanging in as long as possible, even if it means taking some extra shots.
There’s less freelancing at times, but we’re treated to plays like this, where he stays within the structure of the system and finds his checkdown:
That’s a sneaky, tough throw. It’s across his body with the pocket collapsing. It won’t make his highlight tape, but it picked up the first down.
The big improvement, though, has been Jackson’s ability to shake off bad plays. It might sound like a cliché, but that’s vital to any quarterback’s development.
Last year he’d go through mid-game slumps where it seemed he had gotten into his own head. He was pressing. An entire series or two would go by where he would miss receivers high, wide and low. Or he’d start misreading option plays.
This season has been different. Jackson’s shown a cornerback-like ability to discard the previous play and move on. There was one wobble midway through the North Carolina game. He misread a pair of back-to-back plays and missed wide-open receivers. But he bounced back on the next possession, marching the Louisville offense down the field for what wound up being the game-clinching touchdown.
Things feel less frenetic, like the game is slowing down for him.
Being willing to stay in the pocket and getting better there is a symbiotic relationship. The better you get, the more willing you are. The more willing you are, the better you get.
That’s been true for Jackson. He’s been more willing to stand in, and he’s become a more nuanced pocket passer as a result.
In 2016, we saw him play with dancing feet. He was navigating the pocket and looking for throwing lanes, keeping plays alive and looking to find receivers downfield. But there was too much moving for moving’s sake. Not necessarily purposeful movements.
You can be a master at pocket navigation without having an ounce of Jackson’s athleticism. In fact, most of the all-time greats — Joe Montana, Dan Marino, Tom Brady and such — excelled at manipulating the pocket precisely because they mastered the most essential sequence a rhythm passer needs: stick, slide, climb, throw.
Here’s Jackson in 2016: Moving around without great purpose, before trying to bail out of the pocket to avoid pressure.
Here he is against North Carolina in Week 2 of 2017: stick, climb, slide, throw.
Both were good enough pockets to deliver throws. On the first, Jackson’s footwork was haphazard. The short steps were frenzied, and he wound up on an awkward platform before having to run around. On the other, he was silkier, with lighter feet that allowed him to drift up into a simple throw.
There seems to be more trust this season. Whether it’s in himself, the system, or his teammates, Jackson wants to stay in and do his damage from the pocket.
This is perhaps the best example:
You can pinpoint the exact moment where he initially thinks about taking off but decided not to. He could have scampered away and looked to do some damage with his legs.
Instead, he reined in his initial instincts and kept his eyes downfield. He reset his feet, wanting to deliver a throw. He finally scooted away once it was clear no one was open. But the emphasis on staying rather than bailing was obvious.
Jackson’s sense of pressure improved down the stretch last season. At times in early 2016, he looked oblivious to anyone charging in from the backside. Now he’s a new and improved player. All of the agility and strength that he’s shown as a runner are becoming useful tools to help him escape pressure in the pocket.
It doesn’t get better than this.
It should have been a sack. UNC dialed up the perfect “cat” (corner) blitz directly into a naked bootleg. Jackson spotted the blitzer at the last moment. He stuck his drop, slid to avoid the diving defender, gathered himself, reset his feet, and launched a strike to his receiver down the field to a spot where only his guy could get it.
This has been the biggest knock on Jackson since he earned the Louisville starting job: his accuracy. Or, more precisely, consistent accuracy.
He’s capable of delivering “wow” throws as well as anyone in the country. But it’s fair to criticize his down-in and down-out accuracy on throws he should be making. Some of his 2016 struggles were down to sloppy and inconsistent footwork. They’ve carried over into this season.
When he ties his eyes to his feet, he’s usually on point. But there are also instances where everything aligns correctly and he just flat misses, for no obvious reason.
Then there’s the ball placement concerns: Balls that he completes that were thrown to a poor spot — whether it’s behind the receiver or in a spot that eliminates any chance for a run after the catch. Again, it’s an issue usually tied to his feet and eyes. He’s just not an overly accurate thrower when he’s asked to throw from funky platforms.
There’s no doubt he’s improving, however. He’s taking huge strides as an anticipatory thrower, shifting from a sight — “see it, throw it” — passer to someone who’s throwing to landmarks and letting his receivers go get it.
Jackson is starting to do it all: hitting a player before he comes out of his break; threading the ball between a window (like above); using subtle moves to create better throwing lanes. If there were any doubts he could win from the pocket, he’s erasing them week by week.
Consistency is everything moving forward. Consistency with his lower body mechanics and consistency with his reads will lead to more consistent throws. That will take reps. Lots of them.
The only other long-term concern is his understanding of complex coverages.
LSU’s defensive coordinator bamboozled Jackson in the 2016 Citrus Bowl with a series of zone blitzes. Traditional edge rushers dropped out, while linebackers and defensive backs arrived from all kinds of angles. Jackson struggled to pick up who was coming and from where. It led to him pulling the ball and looking to take off with his legs, being hit in the chest by a blitzing defender or making a poor decision that put the ball in harm’s way.
But Jackson’s early performances this season have shown a lot of growth. His offensive line was overmatched against LSU. And Petrino’s offensive game plan didn’t help him out either.
Jackson is putting in the time to improve, including spending hours alone on virtual reality headsets to master fronts and some of the more complex blitz designs he’s thus far struggled to pick up.
More immediately, he has the proposition of a snarling Clemson defense to deal with. One fresh off giving Auburn and its quarterback Jarrett Stidham a whooping last Saturday.
Clemson’s front is the best in the nation. Jackson’s bringing a knife to the gunfight. His offensive line is ill-equipped to deal with the treasure trove of talent and disguises Tigers’ coordinator Brent Venables is going to throw its way.
Louisville is going to need Jackson to harness every bit of magic he has — the kind that saw him account for 93 percent of the team’s offense during the opening week win over Purdue.
That likely means we will see less of the pro-style vertical passing game. Jackson and company just won’t have enough time to set it up. They tried early last season and didn’t fare well.
Instead, expect a healthy dose of power reads and veer options as they look to out-leverage the Clemson defense and give Jackson an alley to take advantage of with his blur speed – the same way they did to Florida State early last season.
This isn’t your average dual-threat player. What we’re watching week in and week out is special. This is peak Michael Vick-like playmaking in the open field, with a better feel in the pocket and a more nuanced approach to the rhythm passing game. There isn’t another quarterback on earth with the ability to make time stop on defenders. Jackson does it on a quarterly basis. Only a handful of players ever could hit a defender with this move:
For some, a beat down on Saturday behind putrid protection will be a knock against Jackson – particularly if it involves him having to run around a whole bunch. Not me. What I’ve seen so far is that the best player in college football has taken a step to another level. That’s pretty special.
Yes, he’s likely to spend much of the night running for his life, but if there were any player in the country who you’d want trying to make something out of chaos, it’s him. Make no mistake, no matter what happens vs.the Tigers on Saturday, this isn’t the same player from a year ago. He’s evolved.
And somehow, he’s even better.