As the resident “outsider” here at KSR, I’ll be the first to admit that I don’t “understand” the Kentucky-Louisville rivalry the way most people reading this do (although in my defense, that’s why I was hired in the first place). I didn’t grow up in the rivalry and don’t eat, sleep and breathe it 365 days a year like so many of you do. My life isn’t fundamentally altered when the Cats beat the Cards or vice versa, even if my Twitter feed is a slightly more pleasant place depending on the outcome.
But while I don’t “know” the rivalry like so many of you, one thing I do know is college football, which is why I come here today with a hope. That hope is pretty simple: While I know that no Kentucky fan (or Clemson fan or Florida State fan reading this) will ever “root” for Louisville quarterback Lamar Jackson, I do hope at the very least we all as college football fans appreciate him. Because in watching what he did last season, and then seeing him somehow start even better this year, I can say one thing definitively: We may never see another college football player ever do what he’s doing right now. Not just in the UK-UL rivalry. Or even in the ACC. But anywhere, at any time.
Like most everyone else reading this, I first learned about Jackson as a true freshman, but it wasn’t until his last year where Jackson put all the pieces together. Early on he was like a wild horse — all arms and legs, with all the tools, but not quite sure how to use them — but last year was the season where it all came together. Like the rest of the college football world I was captivated by him early (those eight touchdowns against Charlotte, the game where he singlehandedly shredded the Florida State defense), with every Louisville game turning into must-see TV thanks to No. 8.
Understand that it wasn’t just that the stats that Jackson put up, but how he did it, with every snap feeling like it could end up on a highlight reel that they’d show on TV the rest of the season. Every play left fans wondering, what would Jackson do next, and then when he did it, how could he possibly top it the next time he touched the ball. Only it seemed like every time he touched the ball he did. Sometimes it’d be by sprinting past defenders for 40 and 50 and 60 yard scores and others, it was flicking the ball 40 yards downfield off his back-foot like a young Brett Favre. Some others he literally leapt defenders in a single bound. And while some of the media soured on Jackson as his team struggled late, I wasn’t one of them. He was the story in college football and deserved the Heisman Trophy, even as Deshaun Watson led Clemson to a head-to-head win over Jackson and a national title. I still believe Jackson was the deserving winner to this day.
Also unlike so many others, I’ll gladly admit that Jackson flew a bit under my radar coming into the season. It’s not to say that I didn’t know how good he was, just that I doubted his ability to repeat as a Heisman winner. Understand that when you win the Heisman you come into the following season with expectation levels that are so high, they’re basically impossible to meet. I’ve seen it happen with Johnny Manziel and Jameis Winston before, as well as perceived favorites like Andrew Luck and Matt Barkley as well. Let’s also remember that he lost virtually every key play-maker off last year’s team, played behind an abysmal offensive line and the defense appeared on paper to be worse as well. It was completely and totally justified to think he would take a step back this fall.
So really, that’s what’s been so crazy about Jackson’s start to 2017: Not only has Jackson been better this season than last, but he’s doing so with less talent around him. Overall his numbers (minus his total touchdowns) are up or at least even across the board; he’s completing a higher percentage of passes and throwing for more yards per game on average than last year, this despite losing his two top receivers. He’s also averaging the same number of yards per rush even though everyone knows what he can do with his feet. Not only that but he’s literally setting records which have never been accomplished before, like last Saturday when he became the first quarterback from a Power 5 school to throw for 300 yards and rush for 100 yards in back-to-back games. Really, it’s insane when you think about it in this capacity: Last season it seemed like teams forced Jackson to beat him with his arm or his legs. This year — with an extra year of film and preparation from opposing coaching staffs — he’s doing it with both.
Therefore, while it feels like hyperbole to say “we’ve never seen anyone like Jackson” that is actually, 100 percent factually correct. Looking back, there really is no one in college football who has ever been quite like him, both statistically and the style in which he plays.
The most obvious comparison — one that gets made regularly — is that Jackson is a lot like a young Michael Vick. The funny thing is that while the comparison feels right, it’s actually not even close when you look at the stats. Last season Jackson accounted for 51 total touchdowns (more on that coming), which is more than Vick totaled in his entire career playing quarterback at Virginia Tech. Just last season alone, Jackson threw for more touchdowns than Vick did in his whole career (31 to 21) and rushed for more as well (21 compared to 17). To use another contemporary example, in Vince Young’s best season he accounted for 24 total touchdowns, a number Jackson doubled in 2016. Even if you factor in change in style of play over the last decade or so, it really is incredible to see how Jackson’s raw numbers stack up historically.
Speaking of history, the best way to appreciate just how good Jackson was last season is to look at those 51 total touchdowns. It ranked as the 13th most total touchdowns in a season, a number which seems impressive on paper and is even more so the deeper you dig. That’s because looking at the list of players who have topped that number shows you that most were quarterbacks who were put in systems designed to put up points and tally touchdowns (think Sam Bradford or Colt Brennan). The only three “dual-threat” quarterbacks on this list are Marcus Mariota, Tim Tebow and Cam Newton, and Jackson joined Tebow and Newton as the only players (as I can tell) to ever tally 30 passing touchdowns and 20 rushing scores in a season.
No one has come close to tallying those numbers twice in a career, and while only time will tell if he comes close this year, one thing is certain: We have never seen a quarterback quite like him in college football and we may never again.
No matter what side of the UK-UL rivalry you root for (or if you’re a fan of another school) please try to enjoy Lamar Jackson while you can.
Aaron Torres is covering football and basketball for KSR this season after four years at Fox Sports. Follow him on Twitter @Aaron_Torres, Facebook or e-mail at [email protected]. He is also the author of the only book written on the Calipari era, “One and Fun: A Behind the Scenes Look at John Calipari and the 2010 Kentucky Wildcats.”