LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Rewarding as it was to win the Heisman Trophy last season, Louisville quarterback Lamar Jackson didn’t end the year the way he had envisioned.
Jackson’s selection as the school’s first Heisman winner was preceded by consecutive losses that erased the Cardinals’ slim chances of being in the College Football Playoff. Louisville then dropped its bowl game, taking some of the luster off the milestone season.
Shaky protection contributed to Jackson’s late-season struggles as he was sacked 22 times over those final three contests. He took responsibility for decisions leading to those sacks along with costly turnovers.
“It’s a team game, so I have to put that on myself,” said Jackson, who was notoriously critical of his play even when he thrived. “A lot of times, we shouldn’t have had sacks when I was trying to do extra.”
Jackson has spent this spring trying to correct those flaws along with building on the talents that earned the Heisman, Maxwell and Davey O’Brien awards among a slew of trophies. And Saturday’s spring game demonstrated his willingness to be more patient and try to be more valuable as a junior.
He stayed almost exclusively in the pocket to complete 19 of 32 passes for 346 yards and three touchdowns with no interceptions in leading the Red team to a 52-7 rout of the White before 14,000. Jackson did this in little more than a half of action, hitting Dez Fitzpatrick with an 80-yard touchdown on his only pass after halftime.
Jackson threw for 3,543 yards and 30 TDs with just nine interceptions last season, but has pegged his growth this spring on improving as a passer. That’s important considering he lost his top three options from last season while a fourth, junior Jaylen Smith, missed spring ball while recovering from a stress fracture.
Four weeks of practice gave Jackson time to hone his skills and find new targets, and he might have found an early favorite in Fitzpatrick, a four-star recruit who redshirted last season.
Fitzpatrick finished with nine catches for 176 yards and two TDs, catching eight for 168 on Jackson passes. Besides the 80-yard score, Fitzpatrick hauled in a 19-yard TD in tight coverage and tiptoed to stay inbounds.
“Obviously, he’s a very accurate quarterback,” the receiver from Farmington Hills, Michigan, said. “All I have to know is, I have to focus on my routes. If I beat my man, I know the ball’s going to be there.”
The mobility that catapulted Jackson to 1,571 yards rushing and 21 TDs remains sharp. On his team’s first drive, he stepped up in the pocket before taking off for a 34-yard touchdown.
It was Jackson’s only true run in the game, though he was credited with four carries for 33 yards. He was sacked just once.
Coach Bobby Petrino has sought better decision making from Jackson this spring but has praised his sharpness throughout. Saturday earned the QB yet another award as the team’s Most Valuable Player, and Petrino didn’t hesitate to state the difference he has made.
“I guess that was Lamar out there,” Petrino said. “I was really excited to see some of the throws he made.”