If you haven’t watched Louisville quarterback Lamar Jackson play football yet — and the television ratings suggest you most likely have not — you’re going to roll your eyes at this, and you should. Your skepticism is 100 percent, fully warranted. I get it. But on behalf of those of us who have watched him play, and have thus been converted, I’m going to say it anyway. Right up front, man: Lamar Jackson looks like the second coming of Michael Vick.
I acknowledge that that statement is, objectively, kind of crazy. At the very least it’s premature. This Saturday’s game against Florida State will be only Jackson’s 11th college start, and the eight he made last year, as a true freshman, didn’t generate anywhere near that kind of hyperbole. Sure, he flashed some obvious potential, in the way a handful of young, mobile quarterbacks seem to do every year (gifted athlete, raw as a passer, etc.) and a stellar performance in the Cardinals’ Music City Bowl win over Texas A&M made him a popular choice for a “breakthrough” sophomore campaign that would put him on the national radar within the sport.
But the preseason hype didn’t rise to the level of Heisman buzz, and certainly didn’t foreshadow the hosannas that have followed his first two outings of the young season. Jackson was good, but not in the same class as, say, Deshaun Watson or Baker Mayfield. He wasn’t Michael Vick good. No one thought, yeah, this kid is The One.
So if you’re looking at Jackson’s skyrocketing stock based on his performances against Charlotte and Syracuse and what you see is a bubble waiting to burst, well, you have a point. It’s too soon. Already almost all of the way-too-early Heisman watch lists have promoted Jackson to no. 1 (ESPN, CBS, USA Today) or close to it (FOX, Sports Illustrated, Newsday) with a bullet, more or less inviting the “September Heisman” label that exists precisely to mock such runaway enthusiasm based on such scant evidence. These ascendant talents, they come and go.
In the current decade alone, you can go back and find the same giddy speculation this time of year over the likes of Taylor Martinez, Denard Robinson, Geno Smith, and Kenny “Trill” Hill — I know, because I’ve helped fuel it myself — that was built on an arguably sturdier foundation. At least when people were losing their collective minds over Hill and Robinson and Andre Woodson back in the day, it was in response to galvanizing performances against familiar, name-brand opponents. In Jackson’s case, Syracuse is recognizable to most fans only as a perennial ACC also-ran, and Charlotte is barely recognizable at all. (The 49ers football team has only existed since 2013.) Have we not learned better?
Apparently we have not. I have not: Again, in spite of all of the above, I’m here today as a proud representative of the Lamar Jackson bandwagon. Yes, I’m wary of overreacting to early returns or buying into the initial hype. I’ve bit before and I’ve been burned. I’m the kind of person who, having been burned, would much rather cast a jaundiced eye on the Next Big Thing and come away with a dozen reasons he ain’t all that. And with this guy, I want in on the ground floor.
To be clear, that judgment doesn’t really have anything to do with the numbers, although the numbers obviously help. Even adjusting for the competition, Jackson’s production in the early going has been off the charts. Against Syracuse, he accounted for 483 total yards and five touchdowns in the first half. He had more than 200 yards and three touchdowns on the Cardinals’ first five plays from scrimmage. In the final tally, he set the ACC and Louisville records for total yards in a game (610) and finished one rushing yard shy of becoming the first FBS player to pass for 400 yards and run for 200 in the same game — not including a huge swath of ghost yardage he was denied thanks to several blatant, wide-open drops by his intended targets. Combined with his abbreviated, hilariously dominant effort against Charlotte in the season opener (where Jackson was benched at halftime with Louisville up 56-0), he’s accounted for 13 touchdowns, best in the nation, in a little less than six quarters’ worth of action. He’s responsible for 18 plays of 20 yards or longer, also the best in the nation. He ranks among the top 10 nationally in rushing yards, passing yards, and pass efficiency. Two weeks into the season, he’s earned the Walter Camp Foundation’s nod as the National Offensive Player of the Week in both weeks.
But with all due respect to the Syracuse defense and the Walter Camp Foundation, you know, so what? None of that is good enough to move the needle in and of itself. With the great ones, seeing is believing, and what has made an evangelist out of almost everyone who has seen him play isn’t Jackson’s stat sheet or trophy case, but his sheer, undeniable talent. He glides past would-be tacklers, effortlessly, wrecking pursuit angles and pulling away in the open field with ease. He can run over them, if necessary. He can jump over them, instinctively, like it’s a thing that just happened to pop into his head and he thought it would be cool to try. He can hit a receiver in stride from 50 yards out with no apparent strain in his windup or release, next-level arm strength that refutes the assumption that he’s just another gifted college runner with no shot at the pros. Pat White, he is not.
The most striking part of that throw, and of every other highlight from his virtuoso performance against the Orange, is just how easy it all looked, as if Jackson was so far and away the best player on the field that he wasn’t really trying all that hard. That may not be the case, but either way it’s a compliment: Everything he does on the field comes so naturally that even the spectacular looks routine.
This shouldn’t factor into anything, logically, but when I watch Jackson, I’m always reminded of an absurd highlight from one of his high school games that made the rounds when he was being recruited out of South Florida, and has resurfaced on social media lately as he’s begun to make college defenders look equally ridiculous:
And yeah, right, that was in high school. There’s no correlation whatsoever between facing Florida State’s defense on Saturday and schooling a bunch of 135-pound teenagers from Boynton Beach. But the ease and fluidity and style in that clip is entirely emblematic of the way Jackson has played so far in 2016: With absolute confidence that he’s the best player on the field, because he so clearly is.
Which is why, if you asked me to describe what Jackson looks like as a college quarterback to someone who had never actually seen him, I’d say he looks like the second coming of Michael Vick, the most entertaining college player of the past 25 years. I’d make that leap because it’s true. Jackson (like Vick at the same stage of his career) has a ways to go as a passer, both in terms of his consistency and his ability to read the field. The potential, though, is the same, and it’s staggering. The statistics are great, but in this analogy just a reflection of the kind of numbers Vick would have put up if he’d played in a modern spread offense at Virginia Tech instead of the Cro-Magnon attack he actually led. The potential is the thing.
Now, will any of that hold up as of Saturday afternoon, after the Cardinals clash with the No. 2 team in both the AP and Coaches’ polls? There’s some chance — maybe a good one — that it will not, that Louisville isn’t worthy of its own top-10 ranking, and that Jackson will be quickly relegated to the annals of preposterous, short-sighted September hype. We have no idea yet if Jackson is tough or gritty or whatever is required in the face of real adversity. Maybe the Next Big Thing buzz is due to shift to FSU’s dynamic young quarterback, Deondre Francois. There’s some chance that this piece will go down within 48 hours as a relic, to be excavated along with the Week 2 Heisman rankings as a curiosity and a cautionary tale the next time a handful of writers and talking heads get overheated over a couple of prolific performances against bad teams. Hey, before you get carried away, remember Lamar Jackson? This moment — between the inflation of the media bubble around a player and the opportunity for the player’s talent to actually fill it, or else watch it deflate as quickly as it went up — is a fascinating one.
But I’ve seen enough that I’m willing to bet on Jackson emerging this weekend as a household name, and obviously I’m not alone. We’re past the point of wondering whether he’s capable: The answer to that is yes, and then some. All that’s left now is for him to actually break through.