BOZICH | Jackson's arm, sizzling offense stir Louisville football expectations
Lamar Jackson showed progress standing in the pocket and throwing the ball. He finished with eight TD passes in the University of Louisville spring football game Saturday.
LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) – It was only an April scrimmage. Can’t hit the quarterback. No kick returns. A few more restrictions.
OK, there were 16,221 fans in Papa John’s Cardinal Stadium Saturday afternoon. And game officials. And a string of former University of Louisville football players on the sidelines.
So, check that. It was more than a scrimmage.
It was a day for observers to wonder if 2016 will be the season that Louisville will crowd Florida State and Clemson at the top of the Atlantic Division of the Atlantic Coast Conference especially after quarterback Lamar Jackson threw eight touchdown passes as coach Bobby Petrino matched his first-team offense and defense against his second teamers.
The first team did what the first team was supposed to do – ring up 834 yards while winning, 73-7. The Louisville offense looked like the Louisville of the first Bobby Petrino Era -- confident, diverse, capable of big plays.
Are the Cardinals ready for raging expectations, a likely spot in the pre-season Top 20?
“I like high expectations,” Petrino said. “Why not? Let’s go for it.”
Five takeaways from the spring game Louisville staged Saturday afternoon.
*LAMAR JACKSON SETTLED INTO THE POCKET – Lamar Jackson didn’t play quarterback the way Brian Brohm or Teddy Bridgewater played quarterback last season.
He ran the ball 163 times. Bridgewater had only 226 carries (mostly on scrambles) in three seasons. Brohm had 172 carries in four years.
Jackson is a different quarterback – and athlete. But carrying 163 times per season is a asking for a trip to the training room. Petrino wants Jackson to improve his footwork and pocket presence during his sophomore season.
“We want to put more pressure on him to throw the ball,” Petrino said.
Petrino wants Jackson to run less while reading defenses and throwing more.
It’s just one spring performance – against the second-team pass rush and coverage guys. But Jackson played like a guy who has embraced coaching Saturday.
His footwork looked cleaner and more direct. He appeared determined to make all of his reads. Running seemed like his third or fourth option, not his first.
“He was going through his progressions and doing what the play was called to do,” Petrino said. “He was really going through the process of getting ready to play. He’s got great arm strength and good wrist snap.”
Arm strength? Clayton Kershaw would like to have the strength Lamar Jackson showed Saturday.
Jackson threw several strikes that traveled more than 60 yards in the air. He completed 24 of 29 passes for 519 yards and eight touchdowns. He ran only six times for 31 yards.
The TD passes were for 8, 7, 10, 4, 44, 85, 54 and 65 yards.
“When you have a guy who can go through all of his progressions, make good reads and is that kind of athlete Lamar is, look out,” said former U of L quarterback Chris Redman.
*RUNNING BACK CAROUSEL – The highlight package was brief for halfback L. J. Scott last season. He ranked fourth on the team in yardage and fifth in carries. He ran for more than 40 yards just once last season.
That should change. Scott started with the first unit Saturday. He flashed the speed to get outside. He ran over linebackers. He caught three passes, including one nice grab after Jackson threw the ball behind his right shoulder and Scott had to reach back toward the line of scrimmage to make the catch.
Brandon Radcliff and Jeremy Smith are not ready to step aside and let Scott have all the carries. Scott ran six times for 51 yards, Radcliff six for 25 and Smith eight for 46. Smith had the only two rushing touchdowns.
Petrino wants Radcliff to improve his receiving and blocking. He wants Scott to follow his blockers better.
“But every scrimmage we’ve had, Jeremy has come up with the longest run,” Petrino said.
*RECEIVERS, RECEIVER, RECEIVERS – Jackson spread the ball to 11 receivers. James Quick, Jaylen Smith and Cole Hikutini each had five catches. Hikutini scored twice.
Quick led the receivers with 152 yards, including an 85-yard touchdown catch. Quick, who will be a senior, flashed 10 yards behind the secondary on that throw.
The final touchdown reception was a 65-yarder to Reggie Bonnafon. He finished with three catches for 81 yards. Not bad for a guy who looked like the team’s best quarterback prospect in the 2015 spring game.
Bonnafon can catch, run or throw. A questioner asked Petrino how he identified Bonnafon?
“A receiver who can run with the ball,” Petrino said. “That sounds like a good title.”
*REMEMBER THIS NAME – Petrino praised linebacker Stacy Thomas for his unrelenting work, even though Thomas missed several snaps after leaving with a minor injury in the second quarter.
Thomas will be an important piece for the defense. He’ll slide into the linebacker opening left by James Burgess. He contributed 11 tackles as the replacement for Burgess after the senior was ejected early in the Music City Bowl.
Thomas led the first-team in tackles with seven Saturday, including 2 ½ for a loss.
“Stacy Thomas played really fast and really physical,” Petrino said. “He can cover.
“His ability to replace James Burgess is important to us and he showed the ability that he can do that.”
*NO DECISION AT KICKER – Petrino said he will not make a decision at place kicker until fall. That’s a major call because finding a replacement for the departing John Wallace will be as essential as replacing defensive tackle Sheldon Rankins or Burgess at linebacker.
In fact, I’d argue finding a replacement for Wallace is the biggest move the offense must make. Wallace said he expects to be invited to an NFL training camp this summer – and as Louisville’s all-time leading kicker with 66 career field goals, I like his chances of making a roster.
Evan O’Hara has been the most consistent kicker during the spring, but Petrino wants to take an extended look at Blanton Creque, who missed the spring after breaking his ankle playing basketball.
“He thought he was a basketball player,” Petrino said.
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