LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- Lamar Jackson spent a good portion of December and January traveling around the country picking up awards. Teammates had to take a look for themselves, arriving at his apartment to snap pictures with the Heisman Trophy.
"It was like we had won it!" defensive lineman Drew Bailey said.
In essence, they had. Jackson became the first Heisman winner in school history, drawing attention to Louisville football in a way nobody else had previously. Now, nobody can think about Louisville football without thinking about Jackson and so many of his highlight-reel plays, starting with the "Lamar Leap" (now featured in the football facility hallways).
That means the spotlight, and the pressure, will be ratcheted up as Jackson plans for his crucial junior season. If he was a revelation to start 2016, he will be a marked player starting this September. Jackson knows this. The Louisville staff knows this. And they have a plan.
Once Jackson returned from his travels, coach Bobby Petrino and the offensive staff had one sheet of paper waiting for him. On it, they listed seven areas in which they want Jackson to improve, based on film study from the 2016 season. A season, remember, in which Jackson finished with 1,571 yards rushing, 3,543 yards passing and 51 total touchdowns.
1. Improve on progression reads
2. Improve on sets in the pocket
3. Improve on seeing the defense and understanding coverages
4. Get better protected
5. Get better at throwing the ball away
6. Ball security
7. Get to 100 percent on run reads
There is another item not included on the list: Add snaps from under center back into the offense, including play-action from under center.
Jackson looked at the sheet, listened to his coaches and immediately went to work. Winning awards did nothing to dampen his competitive drive, nor his perfectionism. Jackson understands that to be the best quarterback, and to prepare himself for a future in the NFL, he needs to check everything off this list.
Petrino and his staff are trying to take Jackson to an even higher level, adding new layers to his already impressive repertoire. As a freshman, Jackson survived on his athleticism and instincts. Last season, he improved his knowledge of the playbook, technique and overall understanding of the offense and won the Heisman.
This season, the goal is for Jackson to evolve not physically, but mentally. Once Jackson understands defenses as well as he understands his own offense, he will be able to make checks at the line and make better decisions. That will lead to fewer sacks, improved accuracy and even better results. And that, in turn, will make him more ready for his NFL future.
"He was pretty darn good last year, but you're always working to improve," Petrino said. "I think if he can do all of this, it will be like the great Magic Johnson years -- one year he's the scorer, the next year he's dishing assists. He's making everyone around him better and that's really the goal.
"If he's distributing the ball, hitting the checkdowns, seeing this, making this check, it's going to make all of us better. Whether he'll ever have numbers like he did last year, I don't know that. Maybe he will, maybe he won't. But it will make the offense more efficient, which makes him better."
Jackson, coaches and teammates have noticed a difference throughout the spring, which ends Saturday with the annual spring game. He is more confident, more vocal and making better decisions. Jackson's career completion percentage is below 60 percent. This spring, he's completed between 75-79 percent of his passes nearly every day.
"I think if he can do all of this, it will be like the great Magic Johnson years -- one year he's the scorer, the next year he's dishing assists. He's making everyone around him better and that's really the goal."Louisville coach Bobby Petrino
That's one tangible sign, but there are plenty of others. During an open practice last week, Jackson noted he made a blitz check on one play in particular. At this time last year?
"I probably wouldn't have said anything about it and I probably would have gotten sacked," Jackson said. "I didn't really make checks like that. I probably made one check last year and that was the Boston College game, when I saw an over front and I checked to another play. But this year, I'm trying to have it where I'm Tom Brady with it. Peyton Manning, stuff like that. Just go to the line and check out of anything that looks wrong."
What quarterbacks coach Nick Petrino has hammered home is one crucial point: Get to the line with your eyes up. Look at not only the formation, but where certain players -- like the safeties -- are lined up. That gives quarterbacks valuable clues about what the defense plans to do.
With that information, Jackson can make checks and change the protection at the line, which in turn better protects himself (item No. 4).
"I'm impressed with how hard he's working on that that right now," Bobby Petrino said. "He wants to know what the safeties are doing, and understand the rotations. As a quarterback, you've always got to handle blitz, so getting himself protected, knowing where the hots are, already thinking about what possibly could be coming or what the threats are depending on the play called. All of those are things he needs to do."
Once the ball is snapped for a passing play, coaches want Jackson to focus on standing tall in the pocket and keeping his eyes down the field. Here is where the progressions get emphasized, making sure Jackson tracks his receivers and utilizes his backs as checkdowns.
All the while, Jackson needs to make sure his shoulders and hips are properly aligned, his footwork doesn't get sloppy and he stays calm when the pocket collapses. Sometimes when he gets flustered, Jackson drops his elbow and the ball comes out sidearmed.
Then there are the sacks, which encompass points 1-5. Louisville allowed 47 last season, including 22 in the final three games. The offensive line has received its fair share of blame, and rightfully so. But Jackson shoulders some of it, too.
Nick Petrino made a cutup of every sack Jackson took a year ago. Some could have been avoided with a different decision.
"He took too many sacks last year where he could have either thrown the ball away or went straight ahead," Nick Petrino said. "He tries to get out of the pocket too much, holding the ball too long at times. ... In the bowl game, we were on the 1-yard line and we ran a naked and he holds the ball and he ends up taking a sack, and there's no point. That's where he's got to learn to throw it away and move on to the next play."
Jackson also has spent extended time this spring taking snaps from under center. He looks natural, but that has come with effort and practice. When Jackson arrived on campus in 2015, he had not taken one snap under center in high school. The last time he had done it was during youth football.
"It was horrible for me," Jackson said. "I was clumsy. I wasn't really progressing well at it, and we just went in the gun after that."
Louisville quarterbacks have practiced both under-center snaps and shotgun snaps every day in spring. Jackson had no problem handling the snap itself. It was getting used to the footwork and drops that took time.
In Jackson's freshman year, Louisville would put Reggie Bonnafon into the game if the Cards had a short-yardage or goal-line situation that required a snap from under center. Last season, Jackson took those snaps sparingly.
But the first three days of spring ball this year, every snap Jackson took came from under center.
"A big part of our offense in the past has always been the quarterback being under center," Nick Petrino said. "It helps the run game and the play-action game, and it's also part of developing Lamar so he can go play in the NFL and do everything he's got to do. It's been good for him. It's helped him with his drops, the timing of throws."
Taking snaps from under center means getting the running backs more involved in the run game, but it doesn't mean limiting what Jackson can do on the ground. He is excellent on zone-reads and power reads, and nobody on staff is going to suggest he quit taking off when he sees a big opening or limit his carries.
But getting better here -- and not fumbling -- round out the list. At crucial points against both Houston and Kentucky to end last season, Jackson fumbled, and that was part of a season filled with them. Jackson had eight fumbles, all on rushes, and lost five.
"That was always a hard one because to be a great runner sometimes you have to be able to move the ball around, but he has to know when to secure it and not have any turnovers," Bobby Petrino said.
There is more work to be done during the four-and-a-half months of film study and workouts before the season opens against Purdue on Sept. 2. When it does, Jackson has vowed those tuning in will see a much different player. "Oh yeah," Jackson said. "Just got to wait 'til September."