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Cards’ Jackson is ‘just chill’ and calm in the face of building national Heisman Trophy media blitz

By Russ Brown
KyForward correspondent

LOUISVILLE–Lamar Jackson is a wanted man these days.

The University of Louisville quarterback started the season as a longshot Heisman Trophy candidate, but with his spectacular play in the Cardinals’ first three games — all lopsided victories — he has surged to the front of the class and is now considered the Heisman favorite.

And with that newfound fame has come a huge uptick in his national profile and popularity.

UofL coach Bobby Petrino mentioned the demands on Jackson’s time following UofL’s 63-20 demolition of then-No. 2 Florida State Saturday afternoon, and not without a little trepidation. Petrino, like all football coaches, doesn’t want his players being distracted from game preparation.

SICover Jackson

“Obviously, you get nervous because he’s so young,” Petrino said, “and you get all these things going on around him. . .and more interviews than he should have to do, but we do them anyway.”

The sophomore’s exposure took the biggest leap of all this week with his appearance on the cover of Sports Illustrated (see accompanying photo), the first Louisville football player to do so. So what does Jackson thinks of all the sudden attention? Not much, apparently.

“I try not to pay any attention to that,” the sophomore said of the Heisman buzz. “I try to keep that out of my mind. I’m not the type to get hyped. I’m just chill. You know, it’s crazy, but it isn’t anything to me. You have to stay humble. Stay humble, and stay calm. Everything is calm to me.”

The university’s sports information department isn’t doing anything special to promote Jackson’s Heisman candidacy. It doesn’t have to, because his performance takes care of that. Football SID Rocco Gasparro says that he is receiving between 15-25 interview requests per week for Jackson, who has been featured by ESPN, CBSsports.com and Yahoosports.com, among other national outlets.

With the season just one-quarter old, Jackson has already thrown for 913 yards and eight touchdowns while completing 61 percent of his passes (50-82) with only two interceptions, and has rushed for another 474 yards and 10 TDs. He is averaging 10.54 yards per play, is tied for the national lead in touchdowns accounted for with 18 and leads in rushing yards for a quarterback. He has had nine plays of 25 yards or longer.

And he has produced a couple of highlight moments with his hurdle of a Syracuse defender en route to a touchdown and his lightning-fast, elusive 47-yard TD run against Florida State on national TV.

Honors have come as fast as touchdowns. The Boynton Beach, Fla., product was named the Walter Camp Offensive Player of the Week the first two weeks of the season, just the second player to repeat since the award was started in 2004, and Wednesday earned the Davey O’Brien Quarterback of the Week for the second week in a row.

Jackson directs a UofL offense that leads the nation in scoring (65.0 points per game) and total offense (670.3 yards per game) and is in the top 15 in a number of other offensive categories.

Jackson’s splendid performance against the Seminoles, whom he torched for five touchdowns and 362 yards of offnse, boosted him into a commanding lead in the season’s first USA Today Network Heisman race, and he is also considered the frontrunner in every other poll. His latest Vegas odds to win the trophy are 6-5.

Chasing Jackson for the Heisman are Stanford junior running back Christian McCaffrey, runnerup last season; Ohio State quarterback J.T. Barrett; and Clemson quarterback DeShaun Watson, who will go head-to-head against Jackson when the Cards visit Death Valley for a nationally-televised game on Oct. 1 (8 p.m., ABC).

“There’s not a lot you can do about the Heisman Trophy,” Petrino says. “It takes a great player and a great team. So if Lamar is going to win the Heisman, he’s got to keep playing the way he’s playing, and our team has to keep performing and doing the things they’re doing because it really has become a team and individual award.”

That’s the main question: can Jackson continue on his torrid pace? Well, one thing that’s certain is that the schedule certainly looks favorable for that kind of scenario. After the trip to Clemson, the Cards won’t face another ranked team until No. 6/7 Houston on Nov. 17 and should breeze through their remaining five ACC games, mostly against the weakest teams in the league.

Despite all the praise and Heisman talk, Jackson has been his own worst critic. Citing his seven incompletions and end zone interception against FSU, he gave his performance a ‘D’ grade while giving the offensive line and receivers an ‘A+’.

“We’ve got a lot of great players,” Jackson says. “It makes my job a lot easier.”

“I wouldn’t want him to be my teacher,” Petrino said. “We all know it wasn’t a ‘D’. He’s a great player. He’s being a little hard on himself and probably being a little bit funny, too.”

Jackson’s next chance to add to his glossy statistics and improve his self-evaluating grade will come Saturday night (8 o’clock, CBS Sports Network) in Huntington, W. Va., against Marshall (1-1). And it appears to be another opportunity for UofL and Jackson to put up more big numbers, considering that the Thundering Herd lost to Akron 65-38 last weekend.

“We know we have a great challenge coming in here,” Marshall coach Doc Holliday says. “Everything Jackson does is a threat; look at his numbers. He can definitely beat you with his feet, there is no question there. He runs away from people and he is not a guy who is going to slide. He is going to run over people and is very physical. And he is a threat with his arm.

“I’m not sure as long as I’ve coached football that I have ever seen a quarterback like Lamar Jackson. Florida State has guys who can run and he just simply ran away from them. I have done this for a long time and I don’t think I have seen a guy who has controlled and taken over a game like he has, and I’ve seen some good ones over the years. He’s tremendous.”

QUOTABLE–As Showtime cameras recorded Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher before the UofL game for a segment of “A Season With Florida State Football”, Fisher joked that Jackson had attended a camp at FSU but the Seminoles failed in their attempt to recruit him out of southeastern Florida.

“I wish he would have gone to Hong Kong,” Fisher joked.

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