THIBODAUX — Sam Darnold knew plenty about Lamar Jackson’s athleticism.
How could the Southern California quarterback not? Jackson, of course, won the Heisman Trophy last year. At 19 years old, the Louisville quarterback was the youngest player to ever win college football’s most prestigious award.
His speed, arm strength and ability to make the most difficult play look simple drew comparisons to Michael Vick. He set multiple Atlantic Coast Conference records and was the only Football Bowl Subdivision player to reach 3,300 yards passing and 1,500 yards rushing.
But Darnold didn’t have a full appreciation of just how well Jackson processes the game until he became his roommate at the Manning Passing Academy at Nicholls State this weekend. In fact, Jackson explained to Darnold — both counselors at the camp — that some people confuse his ability as an escape artist for improvisation.
“He said, ‘A lot of people don’t get it. I know what’s going on every play. Just sometimes I got to run around and make plays,’ Darnold said. “I said, ‘Yeah. I totally get it. I’m the same way.’ We were talking coverages and all this other stuff. He’s a really smart dude. It’s going to take him a long way with his athleticism.”
Jackson returns to the Cardinals for his junior season with the third best odds — two spots behind Darnold — to win the Heisman for the second year in a row. Only one player — Archie Griffin in 1974 and 1975 — has done that, but that’s the furthest thing from Jackson’s mind.
The 20-year-old is thinking about the four losses from last season — more specifically, how his team finished those games.
“I’m going to tell you what my coach (Bobby Petrino) is always telling us: ‘Finish,’ ” Jackson said. “That’s the biggest thing. I feel we didn’t finish any of the games we lost.”
Louisville raced out to a 9-1 record with its only loss coming to eventual national champion Clemson on the road in early October. In those first 10 games, Jackson accounted for 30 total touchdowns and just eight turnovers. The Cardinals sat at No. 5 in the College Football Playoff rankings entering a Thursday night road matchup at Houston, which has the best defense Jackson said he faced last season.
Jackson was sacked 11 times by the Cougars and also fumbled in a 36-10 loss. The next week, the Pompano Beach, Florida, native turned the ball over four times, including a costly red zone fumble with two minutes left, in a 41-38 loss to rival Kentucky.
LSU then had its way with the top-ranked scoring offense in the country in the Citrus Bowl on New Year’s Eve, limiting the Cardinals to 220 yards and no touchdowns in a 29-9 loss.
Jackson has almost unreasonably high standards for himself, saying he hasn’t yet played his best game — this coming for a guy who accounted for eight first-half touchdowns in a 70-14 victory to open up the 2016 season.
Still, he’s moving on to what’s next.
“You can’t dwell on last year,” Jackson said. “Last year’s the past. It’s all about the future now — the present.”
But how does a player who won the sport’s biggest award by a landslide with 51 touchdowns last season get better?
One of the ways Jackson has done that is by putting on 10 pounds of muscle — from 197 pounds to 207 — hoping it translates to him being more difficult to bring down and less prone to injury. He’s also focused on getting rid of the ball quicker and with more accuracy, especially under pressure.
The added weight isn’t affecting his speed either, he said. He’s hoping it makes him even faster. And that’s just the start of how an already supremely talented quarterback can get better, Darnold said.
“Tom Brady is getting better every single day,” he said. “There are plenty of ways to get better — flexibility, watching film, throwing routes to your guys, getting better timing. He’s working on some new receivers that he’s got this year. You can always work on your leadership skills as a quarterback. He’s probably stepping into a bigger leadership role than he did last year, which I’m doing right now at USC. … You can’t coach his athleticism and all that, but you can definitely coach and coach yourself on little things like that.”