CRAWFORD | Meet the other Petrino behind Lamar Jackson's Heisman - WDRB 41 Louisville News

CRAWFORD | Meet the other Petrino behind Lamar Jackson's Heisman success

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Nick Petrino watches Lamar Jackson in a preseason practice. (WDRB photo by Eric Crawford) Nick Petrino watches Lamar Jackson in a preseason practice. (WDRB photo by Eric Crawford)
Nick Petrino. (WDRB photo by Eric Crawford) Nick Petrino. (WDRB photo by Eric Crawford)

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) – The night Lamar Jackson was winning the Heisman Trophy, his position coach had a few people over to his house. When they called Jackson’s name, everybody was slapping Nick Petrino on the back, congratulating him. It was a big deal.

“It was an exciting night,” Petrino said. “I had a few friends over and they seemed more excited for me than I was. I was just excited for Lamar. But it’s something I’ll never forget. It was a special moment. I don’t know if I probably even get how special. Maybe someday I’ll really understand the significance of it better. I do know that it is incredibly special.”

Petrino is 26 years old. Last year was his first as a full-time assistant coach after two years as a graduate assistant under his father, Bobby Petrino.

One year, one Heisman winner. Easy, right?

I can hear people. Coach’s son. Has the job because of his name. The real coach is his dad, You do hear such things.

But it should be understood: This first-year quarterbacks coach was a major player in college football’s best player winning the game’s biggest award.

“Nick, he’s good at breaking things down for me, showing me what I need to see or didn’t’ see,” Jackson said. “Coach will explain something, then he’ll come along and say, did you get that? Do you see what we’re saying?”

For Bobby Petrino, watching his son in that role, and then watching him succeed to experience something few coaches ever do – tutoring a Heisman Trophy winner – was the experience of a lifetime. In some ways, he still sees his son as the 10-year-old kid he took with him to Auburn when he became offensive coordinator in 2002.

“When I went to Auburn as the offensive coordinator, Nick moved with me right away,” Bobby Petrino remembered in a recent interview with WDRB. “So we spent every night up in my office, or in the indoor facility, throwing. He was little, I was coaching him and teaching him all the different techniques and fundamentals. It’s really neat for me to go out on the practice field and listen to him use the verbiage and the drills and everything that we’ve been doing for a long time. He really understands the game. He really understands defenses. And him and Lamar have a great relationship. They work hard together. Nick can be hard on him at times, and hug him up at times, so it’s been fun to watch that.”

Nick Petrino’s path to where he is today has been well-documented. There have been some bumps in the road, to put it mildly. People view being a coach’s son as an advantage a lot of times. It also comes with difficulties, with expectations, with pressure, and without a geographic home base.

But having come through all of that, there may not be a person on the planet more qualified to teach Bobby Petrino’s system to young quarterbacks. And thrown into that role in his first season as an assistant coach, Nick Petrino thrived.

“I’ve wanted to be a coach for as long as I could remember,” he said.

In the past five years, he got serious about it. He was in the coaches’ booth when Arkansas played in the Cotton Bowl. He worked with the staff at Western. And when the time came to take the full-time position, he was ready.

That he was able to shape a raw but immensely talented sophomore into a Heisman Trophy winner was a bonus. Some guys, most guys, go their whole careers without having that kind of an experience.

So most guys have no experience with coaching a guy who has already gone through that life-changing process. But Petrino sees is it as no different from any other coaching challenge.

“There’s a lot for him to improve on,” he said of Jackson. “Little things in his technique. Situations in a game, times where he just needs to throw the ball away. There’s a lot. He’s done a good job of studying those things on video. We’ve made it a point – no negative plays. We’ve given him a lot to work on, and he’s embraced it. One thing people don’t recognize enough about him – he loves getting on the field and getting better.”

One of the biggest areas of improvement for Jackson has been his understanding of the game. Jackson is one of the best instinctive players in college football. To that, the staff has been trying to add a mental edge, and Nick Petrino thinks he has made some significant strides in that area during the offseason.

“He’s really improved on the mental aspect of the game,” he said. “He’s really seeing the pressures and knowing the checks. Knowing his progressions and getting through them and knowing what the check-downs are. The running game, with him under center, I think is going to be good, and take some of the pressure off of him. His footwork is better. There were times last year where his technique got out of whack and he wasn’t as accurate. We just want him within himself and being under control and relaxed and in the pocket.”

Of course, there’s another mental side to the game when you win the Heisman Trophy. You have to handle the hype. Petrino acknowledges that Jackson pressed a little at the end of last season, at times, tried to take too much on himself. But for the most part, he thinks Jackson has done a good job handling the Heisman hype – and not just last season, but over the summer.

“I don’t think the hype ever really got to him, and the stuff that goes on in the press,” Petrino said. “Lamar keeps everything within himself. He doesn’t really listen to the outside. He’s really personal, and does a really good job of not letting things affect him. He had to deal with it all summer too, with winning the Heisman. A lot comes with that. But he’s a really humble kid.”

One of the things that comes with winning the Heisman is your own personal corps of doubters and naysayers. And Jackson has had plenty of those. There was the Fox Sports analyst who didn’t list him among the top five quarterbacks in college football. There was the ACC coach who told Sports Illustrated he’d never play a down in the NFL. There was a national analyst not listing him among the top five candidates for the Heisman this season.

And probably the biggest snub – not being voted the first-team preseason All-American at his position by the Associated Press, after being the consensus first-team All-American quarterback last season.

Jackson shrugs those things off.

“Was I on anybody’s list last year?” he said in a recent one-on-one interview with WDRB’s Katie George, to air before Saturday’s season opener at Purdue. “Don’t think so. It doesn’t matter. I don’t care about lists or who says what.”

His coaches, however, are a bit more outspoken about it. Bobby Petrino, asked about some of the preseason doubts, shook his head.

“I mean, to me, it’s kind of amazing that that even exists,” he said. “All you got to do is turn on the video and watch the guy play. He’s amazing on his stats and everything he did last year. I think for Lamar, he’s been able to just focus and worry about playing games and helping his team win games. But I think deep down it motivates him, too. But I really don’t understand it.”

Someone asked Nick Petrino recently about a media analyst who said Jackson’s best shot to play in the NFL is at a position other than quarterback, and he laughed

“That’s just funny,” he said. “They’re out of their minds. He’s one of the best quarterbacks I’ve ever been around or ever seen. . . . Look, I know how good he is. I know what he can do, what kind of person he is. I don’t look at lists or really care about them too much. Does it motivate him? I don’t think he pays a lot of attention, but then people ask him about it so he hears it. I know if I were a quarterback, it would motivate me.”

Jackson is the game’s most exciting player, and his free-lancing ability, and ability to get into open space and make mesmerizing moves is his calling card. His coaches will do nothing to remove that from his game. It’s who he is. But Nick Petrino says he’s hoping to see a more contained, in-control quarterback in Jackson this season.

“His biggest challenge is really just staying within himself, making the game as easy as possible,” He said. “Last year he tried to do so much on his own sometimes, feeling like he was the guy who had to make every play, and he got himself into trouble at times. He just needs to take what the defense gives him and not make the game too hard. And we’ve worked with him on that.”

And if he ever needs constructive criticism, he won’t have to look to the media to find it.

“I’m going to try to make him better no matter who he is,” Petrino said. “That’s my job.”

And one year in, it turns out the guy is pretty good at it.

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