CRAWFORD | From SI to Sam L. to Fallon, how Louisville's Jackson is handling national spotlight
Lamar Jackson was being talked about on the Tonight Show by actor Samuel L. Jackson and host Jimmy Fallon Monday night. His surge into the national spotlight has been dramatic, but he says he's trying to stay grounded.
LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) -- A month ago, Lamar Jackson was a college sophomore showing up to the University of Louisville football complex early, sweating his reads in coach Bobby Petrino’s passing attack, and hoping that a long spring and summer of work, of getting in at 6 a.m. to watch video, of writing out his mistakes longhand to show the coach, would somehow pay off.
Four games and 25 touchdowns later, Jackson is the favorite to win the Heisman Trophy. He has been on the cover of Sports Illustrated. And on Monday night, the actor Samuel L. Jackson was talking about him with Jimmy Fallon on “The Tonight Show.” As Fallon showed an Instagram screenshot with Trevon Samuel sitting next to L. Jackson on the Louisville bench. Fallon pointed to Lamar Jackson and said, “He's a great quarterback."
"Yeah, that kid might win the Heisman," Samuel L. responded.
"That's what I'm saying," Fallon said.
In the immortal words of Ron Burgundy, “Boy, that escalated quickly.”
Jackson went from zero to Tonight Show about as quickly as he does from the backfield into opposing secondaries.
The challenge now, of course, is to deal with the success, as well as with opponents. So far, at least, Petrino is satisfied with the way Jackson has handled all of the new demands.
“Obviously I think it’s a little more than he thought,” Petrino said. “We have tried to help him with that, you know, only make him available at certain times and really get it to a place where he can handle what the press wants and what we are asking him to do -- also his ability to just focus and concentrate on being a player and a student. . . . He’s been very mature with it and I think he is more comfortable speaking and talking. We are just going to keep working with him on it.”
For instance, I can’t recall another Louisville football player having to hold a teleconference with local and national media. But Louisville sports information held one on Monday afternoon to accommodate the flood of requests in advance of Saturday’s big game at No. 5-ranked Clemson.
It was a circus atmosphere at times, with local radio blaring over the conference call connection, not realizing that they were speaking live to reporters around the nation, but in the end, Jackson handled it the best he could.
He said he’d been asked to sign a lot of copies of the Sports Illustrated cover on which he appears, but that he didn’t get his own copy until Monday. He said being on the cover, the first Louisville player to do so, “It means a lot to me. Being able to be the first person to do anything is an honor to anyone.”
Jackson said that all of this national publicity has been nice, but that he doesn’t spend too much time thinking about it. His Twitter following, for example, has gone from just over 10,000 to more than 33,000 in 27 days. It’s easy to worry about it all being too much too fast for a kid who never experienced that kind of celebrity, but Jackson said he hasn’t struggled with it. And in fairness to him, too fast doesn't seem to be a problem.
“You just have to stay humble,” he said. “I just try to keep my team focused. Keep myself focused. You have to just focus on the next game and not what people are saying. . . . I don’t really dwell on stuff like that. I just try to keep my head level, and not really pay attention to it or whatever.”
Everyone sees Jackson’s speed and talent. He declined, by the way, to talk about how fast his 40-yard dash time is on Monday, saying, “I have more football-speed.” What people don’t see, however, is the amount of work he put in during the offseason.
During the “exit interview” Petrino has with each player at the end of the season, he talked to Jackson about where he could improve, and what potential he has. From that point, Petrino took a kid midway through his freshman year and started to put him through a graduate course in offensive football. He told him that the quarterback position is different. He had to know more than other players.
Jackson was in the complex every morning before daylight, watching film. Petrino had him write down the mistakes he found himself making longhand. It was a way of ingraining those mistakes in his mind. He would see what he missed on video, then go to the field and try to match what he saw on the screen with what he was seeing in real time.
“It was a lot of hard work, just trying to learn the ins and outs of the system,” Jackson said. “And now once I have it, it’s been showing up (on the field). I learned little things. I would focus on one side of the field and if it wasn’t there, I would take off. If it wasn’t there, I would take off. Now I can go through my progressions and check-downs.”
Nick Petrino, Louisville’s quarterbacks coach and Bobby’s son, hasn’t gotten a lot of attention for Jackson’s play, but Jackson is quick to point to his contribution.
“He has a way of breaking things down that I understand,” Jackson said. “He really helped me a lot when I was trying to learn defenses and understand what I was looking at.”
Now, Jackson understands exactly what he’s looking at on the field. It’s hard to say whether he fully comprehends the magnitude of his early season performance around the nation. He’s still focused on what he needs to improve.
“I don’t really feel like I’m completing as many passes as I should a game,” Jackson said. “That’s the main downfall I see in my game right now.”
When ESPN’s Andrea Adelson asked him what he would like his completion percentage to be, Jackson said, “Well, an ‘A’ is 95 percent.”
Reporters chuckled. But Jackson wasn’t laughing. “That’s just me,” he said.
And as long as that’s the case, his head coach will be satisfied. If his goals are lofty enough, the national splash he has caused might not turn his head.
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