LOUISVILLE, Ky. >> Lamar Jackson has looked even better than last year, when his performance was good enough to make him the youngest player to ever win the Heisman Trophy.
This year, the junior quarterback has posted remarkably similar, eye-opening statistics but the attention has been more muted after Louisville stumbled through a 1-4 midseason stretch in Atlantic Coast Conference play this year.
His skills, leadership abilities and prospects as a pro quarterback have been questioned, particularly after defending national champion Clemson and QB counterpart Kelly Bryant upstaged Jackson and the Cardinals in a 47-21 loss in September.
Jackson has sidestepped questions about his NFL future and remained focused on helping Louisville win. And while he doesn’t have the same talent around him like last year, he has led Louisville (8-4) to a three-game winning streak and a berth in the Dec. 30 TaxSlayer Bowl against No. 24 Mississippi State.
He has earned a return trip to New York on Saturday as a Heisman finalist and can become just the second repeat winner and first since Ohio State’s Archie Griffin did it in 1974, and ‘75.
“I don’t really think about all that,” said Jackson, 20, a finalist along with Stanford running back Bryce Love and Oklahoma quarterback Baker Mayfield. “I just come into the game with a passion. I hate losing. I love to win, and that’s it.”
But the stats he has put up along the way have been impressive. He has:
>> Passed for 3,489 of his 4,932 yards of offense, a total four yards better than last year.
>> Scored 42 touchdowns (25 passing), just nine fewer than in 2016.
>> Improved his completion rate from 56 percent to over 60 percent with just six interceptions.
>> Led the nation in total offense per game with 411 yards (one more than last season).
>> Become the first player in the Football Bowl Subdivision to surpass 3,000 yards passing and 1,000 rushing in consecutive seasons.
>> Been named the ACC offensive and overall player of the year, with a school-record 12-game streak of 300-plus yards.
Taking more snaps under center seems to have helped the Pompano Beach, Florida, native. Jackson has shown more poise and patience in the pocket before taking off running.
His best game statistically was a 525-yard, six-TD performance at North Carolina preceding Louisville’s slump that dropped the Cardinals out of the Top 25 and ACC title contention. But the 6-foot-3, 207-pound Jackson remains one of the nation’s top offensive players because of his ability to pass and to embarrass defenders with his legs.
“Every day in practice he’ll do something or he’ll turn around and look at me and comment on his knowledge of the passing game and what he would like to do or what the corner(back) did,” Louisville coach Bobby Petrino said. “It’s just so much fun to watch how he’s grown. I don’t think I’ve ever been around someone that competes like he does and backs it up with confidence and is so humble.”
Jackson can still be soft spoken in interviews but appears to have embraced the media demands that seemed to overwhelm him as a sophomore. He has opened up more, seems comfortable during interviews, even after losses.
Signs that Jackson was coming out of his shell emerged during the week leading up to last year’s Heisman ceremony that featured his flashy fashion combination: a red velvet blazer with shiny black lapels, a black bow tie and black suede loafers adorned with menacing yellow eyes. Initially reluctant to wear the shoes, he happily welcomed the subsequent social media buzz.
Last month’s regular-season finale against rival Kentucky also revealed Jackson’s competitive spirit.
After being knocked out of bounds a yard short of the goal line, Jackson bumped helmets with Kentucky linebacker Jordan Jones before shoving him. That ignited a fight with the players wrestling each other on the turf before the QB was pulled from the fracas.
Jackson eventually accounted for 372 yards and two passing TDs in Louisville’s 44-17 rout, atoning for his costly late-game fumble last year that led to Kentucky’s game-winning field goal in a 41-38 upset.
“There was stuff said,” he said last month. “They wanted to win, we wanted to win.”
That desire has helped Jackson return to the national stage playing his best football since early last season, when the Heisman became his to lose. Though history is against him when it comes to winning the trophy again, returning has proven that last season wasn’t a fluke — there’s no doubt he is one of the best college players in the nation.
“I’m just happy to be going to New York again,” Jackson said. “It’s up to the voters.”